The last time that Juan Pablo Montoya raced his way to Victory Circle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he was an IndyCar rookie aged just 24. Now 15 years older and wiser, and with a career in F1 and NASCAR under his belt, the Colombian secured a brilliant second Indy 500 victory in a thrilling climax to an eventful race which at one point saw him drop all the way to the back of the field, seemingly out of contention.
“I don’t know what to say. This is too much!” a breathless Montoya said. “This is what racing in IndyCar is all about – awesome racing all the way down to the wire. It was just awesome. This is what racing and IndyCar is all about.”
“These guys, Team Penske, did an amazing job. I had the feeling that I had a really good car, but that fight at the end was really, really hard. All the way down to the wire. This is pretty awesome.”
Coming with it the record for the longest interval between Indy 500 race wins (the previous milestone was ten), this was a stunning achievement in anyone’s book. The win was made even more impressive by the quality of the competition arrayed against him with his Penske team mates Simon Pagenaud and Will Power both looking strong, and pole winner Scott Dixon leading for a race-high 84 of the 200 race laps during the three-hour race.
Despite being somewhat curtailed by the weather and an accident in practice last weekend’s qualifying session had nonetheless done a decent job in setting the starting order for the 2015 Indianapolis 500. Lining up behind the pace car driven by four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon were pre-race favourites Scott Dixon and Will Power starting alongside each other on the front row where they were joined by Power’s Penske team mate Simon Pagenaud.
Immediately behind Dixon was his Ganassi team mate and 2013 Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan together with the a three-time winner of the race in the form of Helio Castroneves, the third member of the Penske contingent. And just stopping a Chevrolet whitewash of the front two rows was Justin Wilson who was on the outside in the Andretti Autosport #25 as the green flag was waved by honorary starter Patrick Dempsey to get the action underway. Montoya by contrast was having to start in the mid-field pack in 15th place, which was risky in terms of the potential for getting caught up in other people’s accidents early on.
Dixon, Power and the rest of the leaders quickly dropped into single file, but as Sage Karam tried to do likewise by moving up the track in turn 2 he was caught out by the presence of Takuma Sato running on the outside. Sato got pinched by the Ganassi car, the contact twisting Karam into the wall and ensuring that he was out on the spot while Sato’s AJ Foyt Racing #14 headed to pit road for lengthy repairs to left front suspension damage from the collision that put him two laps down.
Also going for a spin in the aftermath of the accident was Schmidt Peterson Motorsport’s late-notice stand-in Ryan Briscoe, who had the air taken off his front wing by Dale Coyne Racing’s James Davison as the field struggled to avoid the accident up ahead. Briscoe’s SPM team mate Conor Daly had already exited the race, not even making it to the green flag after suffering a fire at the back of his #43 car while still on the formation lap.
The resumption of the race was delayed after Simona de Silvestro made contact with the rear of Montoya’s car, resulting in further debris on the track. Montoya needed to pit for a new right rear wheel cover and de Silvestro for a new front wing, which put both of them at the back of the grid for the restart on lap 13.
Dixon successfully retained the lead while Power was unable to fend off his team mate Pagenaud for second. Kanaan was still in fourth place, while Wilson had picked up a spot from Castroneves. All the way at the back of the field, Montoya was quick to get down to the business of charging his way back into contention after his enforced visit to pit road.
As the cars settled in and found their true pace, Kanaan surged past the two Penske cars and then took the lead from Dixon for the first time on lap 19. The Ganassi pair seemed evenly matched and traded the lead back and forth between them. Dixon was back out in front again when he kicked off the first round of green-flag pit stops on lap 36, with Kanaan in next time around. That handed the lead to Montoya who had taken on an extra five laps worth of fuel when he’d been forced to pit under the earlier caution for repairs. However when it came to his own pit stop a few minutes later, Montoya – still seething from his early setbacks – came in too hot and slid through his pit stall costing him five crucial seconds, also running over his air hose to earn himself a warning (but crucially, no penalty) from race control.
As the race passed lap 42, Dixon was back in charge at the front with Pagenaud having picked up a spot on Kanaan on pit lane for second, while Montoya rejoined the race in 17th place after his overshoot. Ten laps later and the leaders had a new headache as they started to find the road ahead full of backmarkers which they needed to thread their way past.
One of the backmarkers was Bryan Clauson, and after having already gone a lap down the KVSH Racing/Jonathan Byrd’s Racing driver then considerately tried to stay up high to avoid holding up the rest of the field as they came past. Unfortunately that put him onto the discarded marbles that had been cast off by the Firestone tyres, and the loss of grip sent skating up the track and into the wall on the exit of turn 4 to bring out the second caution of the day on lap 64.
Pagenaud beat Dixon, Kanaan, Power and Castroneves off pit road, with Charlie Kimball up to sixth in the Ganassi #83 ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Marco Andretti, while Montoya had by now succeeded in working his way up to eighth place for the restart ahead of Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) and JR Hildebrand (CFH Racing). Caught out by the caution were Justin Wilson and 2014 Indy 500 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay who had just made their second stops under green before Clauson’s accident, putting them at the back of the lead lap when racing resumed on lap 70.
Dixon made an immediate pass on Pagenaud for the lead, only for Pagenaud to take it straight back again on the next lap. Kanaan initially appeared to have his hands full warding off Power, but as soon as his tyres warmed up the Brazilian veteran went to warp speed and passed both Dixon and Pagenaud to go to the front. Pagenaud was able to stick with the #10 but seemed disinclined to take the lead for himself at this point, while Dixon appeared to be playing a numbers game and dropped behind Power to fourth place just ahead of the third Ganassi of Charlie Kimball which was continuing to the same sort of pace as that of his team mates. Behind Kimball were Castroneves and Montoya, with Andretti in eighth followed by Rahal and Carlos Munoz
Kanaan was in for his third pit stop of the day two laps shy of the midway point of the race. The rest of the field followed suit with Montoya judging his stop better this time, so that by the cycle was complete Pagenaud had come out ahead of Kanaan, Montoya, Power, Dixon, Kimball and Castroneves with Andretti maintaining eighth place.
The race went under full course caution once again on lap 112 when a move by Ed Carpenter on Oriol Servia for 14th place led to contact that sent both cars into the turn 1 wall. The field decided to come in for an early fuel top-up, but the round of pit stops turned into a nightmare for all three Dale Coyne Racing cars when James Davison was released into the path of his team mate Pippa Mann who was already pulling out from the stall behind. The pair made contact and Davison’s car was jolted right into Tristan Vautier’s stall where the pit crew were still hard at work servicing the #18. Davison sent two of the team personnel flying, their conditions serious enough to require an ambulance to attend the scene. The right front tyre changer was soon checked, treated and released for a left foot injury while the rear tyre changer was dispatched to IU Health Methodist Hospital for further evaluation for a right ankle injury. It hadn’t been the first incident on pit road, with one of Gabby Chaves’ Bryan Herta Autoport crew also having been dispatched to the in-field care centre for a checkover after bring knocked over during an early round of stops.
During this upset, Pagenaud had retained the lead with Power now up to second place ahead of Dixon, Montoya and Castroneves as Kanaan emerged the biggest loser from the latest round of pit stops, now down in sixth just ahead of Kimball and Andretti. When the green flag came out on lap 123 it was Power who immediately leapt to the front, but Dixon responded with a sensational flier down the inside of turn 1 to take the lead back next time by. Power found the pace too hot to handle for now and dropped back, leaving the chase to Pagenaud and Montoya who seemed the biggest threats to Dixon’s control of the race at this stage.
Everyone still had two more stops to make, and Dixon was in for his penultimate visit to pit lane on lap 150 followed a lap later by Kanaan for fuel and a downforce change, and then a gaggle of Penskes next time by. There was nearly a three-way collision between Pagenaud, Montoya and Power as they slugged it out to win the race off pit road, but as they rejoined the track right alongside Dixon there was a new full course caution – and the groans of dismay from the packed grandstands confirmed that it was fan favourite Kanaan who had lost the backend going through turn 3 and hit the wall backwards to put an emphatic end to his day.
The timing of Kanaan’s crash during the pit cycle meant Kimball was in the lead for the restart on lap 160 and it was three laps before his team mate Dixon was able to find a way around him, quickly followed through by Montoya who was now fully on it. The two were vying for the lead when a debris caution was called on lap 169 for bodywork that had dropped off the back of Takuma Sato’s AJ Foyt Racing #14, conveniently timed to enable the field to come in for their final round of pit stops of the day.
Power won the race off pit road ahead of Montoya with Dixon dropping two places and emerging ahead of Pagenaud, Castroneves, Kimball, Andretti and Rahal; however, Justin Wilson and Carlos Munoz had decided to stay off pit road and led the field to the green flag with 27 laps to go. Despite his older tyres, Wilson was fast enough to cling on to the lead for a lap before Power swept around the outside followed by Montoya going through on the inside. Pagenaud was not so lucky in all this and damaged his front wing in all the jockeying for position, sending him tumbling back down the order and forcing the pursuing cars to scatter to avoid the sudden unexpected slow-motion road block.
The yellows were out seconds later, but it wasn’t anything to do with Pagenaud. AJ Foyt Racing’s Jack Hawksworth had tapped the back of Sebastian Saavedra’s Ganassi and sent both cars spinning into backwards contact with the wall at turn 4. As Saavedra’s car bounced off the SAFER barrier it crossed right into the path of Stefano Coletti’s KV Racing Technology #4 who had no chance to react, leading to a savage impact and a shower of carbon fibre debris. Hawksworth was able to climb out of his car unaided while Coletti accepted a helping hand as he appeared stiff and winded; Saavedra however needed rather more attention from the Holmatro safety team, who removed his right boot before lifting him from the wrecked car and carried him to the waiting ambulance.
“I was coming into turn 4 and the two guys in front of me crashed and hit the wall and I was able to avoid the first one, but not the second,” said Coletti. “Its unfortunate because I think I could of had a top-15, but that’s the way it ended. I just wanted to finish my first Indy 500 and I didn’t so hopefully I can do better next year.”
Once the track had been cleaned-up, Power led Montoya and Dixon to the green flag again with 15 laps to go – and every one of them proved to be an edge-of-the-seat thriller, the trio locked together in close quarters combat for lap after lap. All three had their individual chance to go to the front, but each time their pursuers were able to pick up the tow and blast around them resulting in a total of 15 lead changes during the closing laps. Finally the Penske pair applied their superiority in numbers to dispense with Dixon, and from then on it became a Power/Montoya showdown.
“When I really needed to go, I just couldn’t turn the car,” explained Dixon of his sudden drop-off in the final laps. “We were fighting a little bit with the car overheating, so we were trying to go over different ignition maps. There was definitely a lot going on.
“As the laps were counting down I was trying to make something happen. Every time I came to the apex at Turn Two or even Four toward the end, the front just wouldn’t hang on and I had to breathe it.
“Probably would have gone more front wing or a pressure change or something to get a little more front end,” he said when asked if there was anything he could have done differently in the final pit stop that would have put him in better stead at the end. “I was okay when I was in second place, but if I dropped to third or fourth, it was keep the car turning middle off, and that’s what caught us out.”
Power had the early advantage but with three to go it was Montoya who moved to the front in turns 3 and 4 and then spent the rest of the race doing everything he possibly could to deprive his team mate of the draft. It was close – stunningly close at several points – but the Colombian knew what he was doing and when the chequered flag came out he had a tenth in hand over Power. By comparison with what had just been seen during the fast and furious final laps, that slender margin was practically a country mile.
“Montoya got into the lead and maybe I was to nice to him,” said Power. “It was a lot of fun finishing one-two – congrats to Juan!
“It was a great month overall – first, first and second, second,” added the reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion, who had previously won the Grand Prix of Indianapolis from pole two weeks ago and followed it up with a second place finish in the Indy 500 from second on the grid.
Whichever of the two drivers had won it, it was going to be cause for celebration for team owner Roger Penske who has now been a winning owner in the Indy 500 for a record-extending 16 occasions.
“I couldn’t believe it. To see those two guys out here,” said Penske. “Ganassi was so strong all day long and they had a smart driver in Dixon. Our guys stayed in there, and Montoya coming from all the way in the back … I’ll tell you, you give that guy the bit and put it in his mouth, as you know, he doesn’t give up. I’m just so thrilled for everyone who works for us, all the people who support us and all these race fans that here, what a great day.
“It’s a great day for Team Penske. I knew we had two up there, but the worry was Dixon and the #83. At the end of the day, they played fair. Good passing and we won the race.”
Behind Power, Kimball had indeed put in an excellent performance in the #83 for a career-best finish in third, having initially hung back from the fight at the front in case the leaders took each other out but then taking advantage of Dixon’s late waning pace to clinch a podium position for himself. Dixon did manage to hold on to fourth ahead of Rahal, Andretti, Castroneves and Hildebrand, while Carlos Munoz had to drop out of fifth place with just two laps to go and ended up finishing in 20th place after being forced into a late splash-and-dash along with Justin Wilson, the other driver not to pit for fuel under the final caution.
But for Montoya, the outcome was surely the fulfilment of a dream. After he was ousted from his race seat with Ganassi in NASCAR following a mediocre seven-year stint in the Sprint Cup championship, Montoya said that he wanted only one thing: a team that gave him the chance to win races. He’d already achieved that with two victories at Pocono and St Petersburg since his return to IndyCar in 2014, but his success in clinching an encore Indy 500 title this weekend puts all the trials and tribulations of F1 and NASCAR firmly behind him.