During his two seasons with Chip Ganassi Racing as a CART IndyCar Series driver, Juan Pablo Montoya grew accustomed to seeing two things on a regular basis: Victory lane and a sea of Colombian flags waving in the grandstands. It continued on his second tour in IndyCar with Team Penske as the flags returned, a second Indy 500 win was taken and a second championship was nearly earned.
On Sunday, the odds favor one of two of his successors to capture the latest IndyCar crown, and in the case of Spain’s Alex Palou and Mexico’s Pato O’Ward, they’ve combined for a Montoya-esque season by winning 33 percent of the races.
More directly, and beyond their shared language and Hispanic heritage, Montoya — the elder statesman — has taken a deeper interest in their development. The pair want to follow in Montoya’s championship-winning footsteps and to that end, he’s made an effort to help and mentor the IndyCar sophomores along the way. Whether it’s been by phone or in person, JPM’s influence has been felt by Palou and O’Ward.
“I knew Juan because we had some friends in common from karting, so before the season started last year when I was with Dale Coyne, we met each other and we started talking a lot,” Palou told RACER. “I would ask him especially before going into my rookie season about the best way to out-laps and in-laps, how to race close to the guy in front without hurting my tires, and a lot of things like this that I didn’t know about IndyCar. He would tell me a lot of stuff and it was really good for me.”
With JPM concentrating on his final season with Acura Team Penske’s IMSA program in 2020, Palou made sure to stay in close contact as they toured around North America.
“I started just calling him almost before every race, even road courses, and he was telling me some small details on what to do, details that that I wouldn’t have known before,” he continued. “And he told me many things about racing on ovals last year because this was new to me. He was a good help and this year, I still keep in contact with Juan, but I don’t have to ask as many things!”
Palou, with his devastating efficiency, represents the under-reported side of Montoya’s IndyCar career. Between the many wins, it was JPM’s constant presence in or around the top 5 where big points and his perennial status as a championship contender was forged.
And with his championship rival, O’Ward has become the closest thing to JPM 2.0, thanks to the mercurial speed and daring passes he makes at the expense of whoever’s in his sights. In May’s Indy 500, O’Ward shared the event with Montoya and while he was only a few months old when JPM clinched the 1999 CART title and was too young to recall his time in Formula 1, their bond was immediate.
“I’m a big Montoya fan, I gotta say,” O’Ward declared. “When I was growing up, the era that I watched was Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, so I missed out on his time in Formula 1, but my whole family is like, ‘Montoya, holy ****.’ The older I get, the more I understood that he’s a pretty ******* big deal.
“I really, really enjoyed having him as a teammate for the 500, and here and there, he’ll drop in and say, ‘Hey, just watch the rear tires,’ or say something good to use from his experience. The guy knows what he’s talking about. He’s been doing it at the highest level for longer than I’ve been alive.”
Many years removed from his last full-time run in the NTT IndyCar Series, Montoya’s kept an eye on how the championship’s played out for the kids who are keeping his spirit alive in open-wheel racing.
“Both of them have been doing an amazing job and both deserve a shot at the championship,” Montoya said. “You gotta say Alex and Ganassi have done an amazing job; at this point, they’ve done a little better job, been more consistent being up front every week. Pato is very good in qualifying, and if he qualifies fifth, you know it’s a 10th-place car, and then he drives his ass off in the race.”
Having moved to Europe in support of his son’s burgeoning racing career, Montoya says he’ll spend Sunday rooting for the two from afar. He’s also trying to figure out if there’s a way to avoid the inevitable disappointment that awaits one of the next-generation stars.
“For me, it’s kind of weird because Palou is a really nice kid, and I really like Pato as well,” he said. “I raced with Pato this year with Arrow McLaren SP and I raced, like Palou, with Chip [Ganassi] before, so there’s a conflict there, you know what I mean? I want both of them to do really well, but they both can’t be the champion, so it’s like I’m in the middle of these guys wanting them to win.”
With their careers taking off in the time of COVID, racing in front of empty grandstands and crowd size restrictions at some of the other tracks has kept Palou and O’Ward from seeing an abundance of Spanish and Mexican flags held aloft since 2020. There’s a hope within both drivers to build their respective fan bases and, if they’re fortunate, to tap into the fervor stirred by Montoya during his peak in popularity.
“Now that Pato and I are both fighting for the championship, I think more people are getting interested,” Palou said. “We’ve been seeing a lot of Mexican flags all around, but not many Spanish flags yet. Hopefully we can get more and more, and I think it’s going to be awesome. Hopefully we can get that championship and get more Spanish-speaking people interested in IndyCar. I think that would be good for everyone.”
O’Ward witnessed immediate reactions from fans after earning his first and second wins earlier in the season.
“I’ve seen it grown quite a bit with Latin American fans,” he said. “I have to say like, in the past few races, it’s like 50 percent of the fans that are at the track are my fans and that fills me up with so much gratefulness. Specifically, after my win in Texas, and then Detroit, I have really seen a difference with more Mexican fans coming to the races and supporting me. I feel like we are all in it together, and it’s growing.”
It remains to be seen if they’ll soon have the same incredible reception Montoya received from his loyal Colombian fans, or something akin to what former IndyCar hero Adrian Fernandez experienced from his legion of supporters from Mexico, but the two-time Indy 500 winner has no doubt as to whether it’s deserved.
“For me, or when Adrian was there, we were the only ones really doing it; so if you liked motorsports back then, and you want to see a guy from your country that raced, we were the guys,” he said. “That’s a little different today. There’s Checo (Sergio Perez) and Fernando (Alonso) in Formula 1, so Pato and Alex aren’t the only ones, but they’re the best right now in IndyCar and IndyCar is definitely moving in the right direction. I think there’s a big chance for these kids to make a lot of new fans, Latino fans too, but personally, what matters to me is if they can drive the car.
“Really, I don’t care so much about if you’re Scott Dixon and from New Zealand, or Scottish like Dario [Franchitti]. That doesn’t automatically make you anything, just because of where you come from. There are some bad drivers from every country, and they don’t have fans. Can you drive the car fast and do a good job with it? That’s what matters. And if you can, then the people will care. I think these kids can make that happen.”