If anything has been more infuriating to him than frustrating race results, it’s the speculation that Juan Pablo Montoya has lost his desire to drive an Indy car.
The Team Penske driver fumes when the subject is broached. The 40-year-old Colombian has heard the “rumors” and adamantly refutes them.
“I would love to know who says that (stuff). I’ve heard it, too,” said Montoya, who is 12th in the points and in danger of being eliminated from championship contention in the next race, the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway on Aug. 21. This after losing last year’s title on a tiebreaker to Scott Dixon.
“It’s kind of annoying because I feel like I’m driving better than I have since I came back (to Indy car racing in 2014). Things just haven’t gone my way. Last year, whatever we did was the right thing. This year, I think my speed is way better. We just haven’t had a single break.”
After beginning the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season with a win at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and finishing ninth or better in the next four races, Montoya spun on his own and crashed out of May’s Indianapolis 500 in last place, 33rd. He’s had three 20th-place finishes since. A race strategy that didn’t pay off resulted in 11th place at the last race, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.
Last year, Montoya won his second Indy 500 in addition to a victory at St. Petersburg. He finished in the top 10 in 13 of 16 races with only one finish worse than 14th.
He attributes his 2016 struggles to bad luck.
“It’s racing,” he said. “You have good years and you have bad years. It’s just a bad year. That’s what it is. How can you control blown engines or cautions? You can’t control that. Things outside my control, things have gone wrong, but things in my control, I think we’ve been OK. We’ve been pretty good.”
Since breaking through as an Indy car champion for Chip Ganassi Racing in 1999, Montoya has driven in Formula One and NASCAR. Fourteen years after leaving Indy cars, he returned in 2014, won at Pocono and finished fourth in the championship.
He was the points leader for the entire 2015 season entering the final race at Sonoma Raceway. He finished sixth and Dixon won the race, leaving both with 556 points. Dixon won the title by virtue of three race victories to Montoya’s two for the season.
Nobody is more no-nonsense than Montoya, who is known as much for his fearless aggression on the track as his blunt demeanor off it.
He bristled when asked if he’s been pressing this season.
“If I wasn’t pressing, you would notice it,” he said. “If I wasn’t pressing, I wouldn’t be passing more people than anybody. If I wasn’t pressing, I wouldn’t be as quick as I was. Unless you want to make something up, I don’t see what you’re talking about.”
He insisted he’s as passionate about driving as he’s ever been.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely,” he said. “Right now, I’m loving it. I’m getting really good at it again. I’m pretty happy.”
Because the 15-time Indy car race winner hasn’t been himself on track and his contract is up after this season, it has prompted some to question his desire. It also doesn’t help that Team Penske teammates Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Helio Castroneves are the top three in points. Montoya has accomplished so much and is on the series’ most successful team, so the bar is always set the highest.
“That’s why I’m good,” he said of expectations. “That’s why I do what I do. If I wasn’t good … You look at my speed in qualifying at Toronto. Yeah, I made a mistake on Friday, but on Saturday we had an engine problem and didn’t do any laps, and my lap was the third-fastest lap overall.
“Do I need to worry? No. My speed is good. We’re there. It’s just the same thing over and over.”
Pagenaud, the points leader, doesn’t put any credence in the notion that Montoya has lost his drive.
“He seems very passionate about what he does and he’s very involved,” Pagenaud said. “He’s having a season like I had last year. Bad luck. He’s having a lot of bad luck. It has nothing to do with him, really.”
Montoya elaborated on some of his misfortune.
“It’s been like that,” he said. “Look at how quick we were at Iowa, and the frickin’ thing blows up. Detroit, the first (race of the doubleheader), I was fast enough to win it and the caution came out and screwed us completely. I still finished third. The second day, we picked the wrong strategy at the start of the race and put ourselves in a hole but that was it. That’s what it is.”
He hates to hear it, but the negative buzz about him is sure to continue until the race results improve.
“Somebody is making up the rumors,” Montoya said. “I would love to know who it is because if he doesn’t think I’m trying, he’s not paying attention to the races.”