ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – There was a time when these bad boys didn’t sit together like racing’s version of the “Three Amigos.”
Back in the day, Michael Andretti and Paul Tracy (pictured above on the podium at Nazareth Speedway in 1997) had a genuine disdain for each other. Eight years later in 1999, along came Juan Pablo Montoya, who like those predecessors subscribed to the belief that racing isn’t about making friends. Montoya and Andretti almost came to blows after a practice crash in Japan. Yet there they were Friday, sitting together at a Verizon-sponsored event at Road America in advance of Sunday's KOHLER Grand Prix, talking and laughing about how things used to be between them.
Some would say the bottom-line Montoya is still the closest thing to a villain in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Andretti, who won at Road America three times, eventually transitioned to being a successful team owner. Tracy, a two-time winner at this track, has been a TV analyst for NBCSN since 2014.
Andretti was on his way to a 1991 Indy car championship when Tracy arrived. Tracy considered Andretti and Al Unser Jr. the drivers to beat each race. An intense father, Tony Tracy, hounded his son to “take no prisoners” on or off track.
“You’ve got to hate the guy you’ve got to beat. You’ve got to kick his ass,” Tracy said Friday, repeating his father’s reminders. “I had my dad constantly telling me, ‘Michael and Al are the two guys you’ve got to beat.’ I didn’t waste any time making enemies with them.”
A smiling Andretti remembers it that way, too. Tracy was perceived as being overly aggressive, which inevitably could be hard on the equipment and the other cars.
“When Paul came up, he actually did a good job listening to his dad because he did make many enemies, for sure,” Andretti said.
Not that the son of 1969 Indy 500 winner Mario Andretti was much fun on any given day. Michael won 42 races, third on the all-time Indy car list, 10 behind his father.
“I think my drive was not to fail,” said Michael, 53, whose last race was in 2007. “It wasn’t about the win. It was, ‘Don’t fail.’
“I think that had a lot to do with growing up the son of (Mario) with all the expectations. It made it not as much fun to race as maybe the other way, but it really worked for me in the way of drive. I would never give up because of that.”
He was the driver to beat 15 years ago, but that focused demeanor didn’t endear Andretti to others.
“You want to be the guy that’s hated,” he said. “In the early ‘90s, I was really hated. I used to get booed everywhere. Then you get to the late ‘90s and early 2000s and, all of a sudden, everybody is cheering for me.”
That’s when he was nearing the end of his driving career. He still holds the distinction of leading the most Indianapolis 500 laps (431) without a win. He’s won the Indy 500 four times as an owner, but back in his day, fans related to the second-generation driver who showed so much determination through the years.
Tracy, 47, identified with how the no-nonsense Andretti went about his business. They eventually became Newman/Haas Racing teammates in 1995.
“Michael and I are probably two guys during our racing career who probably weren’t the friendliest in the paddock in terms of walking around and meeting and greeting fans,” Tracy said. “I just wanted to win races and think about my car, think about practice. I was usually walking around with this frown on my face because I was thinking about things.”
Lest anyone forget, another common denominator between Andretti, Tracy and Montoya was success. Tracy won 31 times. Montoya, in addition to his Formula One and NASCAR stints, has celebrated 15 Indy car victories, including two Indianapolis 500s as well as a 1999 Indy car title.
“I came from Europe. You’re not here to make friends,” Montoya said of his 1999 arrival. His Japan run-in was memorable. Carl Haas, co-owner of Andretti’s car with Paul Newman, threw an unlit cigar at the chest of Chip Ganassi, owner of Montoya’s car. The next day, the two drivers came to an understanding.
“This isn’t Europe. We don’t drive that way,” Andretti recalled from his conversation with Montoya, who had a knack for crowding cars on track. “Since that time, I felt like I could run wheel to wheel with him anywhere. But it was a tough start.”
Montoya, 40, doesn’t waste time giving advice to his competitors these days. But make no mistake, there are series drivers that make the Colombian nervous, just like he used to do to Andretti.
“Nowadays, you have so many guys you do not trust to run (with),” Montoya said. “It’s unbelievable. If you put me with (Scott) Dixon, (Tony) Kanaan or my (Penske) teammates, certain other guys, (Ryan) Hunter-Reay, I’ll go in there and I’m OK.
“You go in with some of the (other) guys and, I mean, no way.”
Montoya has led 57 laps in his previous two starts at Road America, but he also didn’t finish either race on the challenging 14-turn, 4.014-mile layout. He was leading in 1999 when his gearbox broke with seven laps remaining, dropping him to 13th. A year later, he finished 16th.
This weekend marks the first time Road America has hosted an Indy car race since 2007. It is where Montoya wanted to race again. He enjoyed Thursday’s track walk, when he saw campers and fans hanging out. And he lives for a road course that presents a challenge.
“What puts this above all the other big tracks in the world is this is the only one kept the same way,” he said of a layout that allows cars to maintain speed in the turns with minimal run-off areas. “The risk against the reward is higher here.”
While he might not be the same guy who once described his driving as, “Just young, dumb and go for it,” Montoya still has a nasty nature.
The mutual respect developed with Andretti stemmed from a simple understanding.
“I don’t take crap from you,” Montoya said.