He’s still strikingly handsome, albeit in a more-mature way with gray increasingly invading his hair.
But as Juan Pablo Montoya approaches 40, the younger fellow drivers who considered the Colombian their boyhood idol when he first hit the IndyCar scene with a splash 16 years ago still don’t call him, “Mr. Montoya.”
“Nobody respects me that much,” Montoya said Thursday after he and the rest of Team Penske arrived to begin preparations for Sunday’s inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana at NOLA Motorsports Park in Avondale.
Two weeks ago, in the first race of his second season back on the Verizon IndyCar Series circuit after a 14-year absence, Montoya captured the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
And Montoya did it in the same aggressive style that made him a rookie sensation in 1999 when he won seven races to become the youngest series champion in what was then called the CART series.
“Juan was always going to be Juan,” said longtime friend/rival Tony Kanaan.
Off the track today, Montoya is much mellower than his younger self. A dozen years of marriage and three children, including rising go-kart contender Sebastian, age 10, will do that to you.
Still, for a form of motorsports in need of star power, Montoya, whose time away from IndyCar was split between Formula One and NASCAR, could provide that spark.
“JP’s a tremendous racer,” said fellow Team Penske member Simon Pagenaud, who at 30, was a teenaged go-kart driving fan of Montoya during his Formula One years. “You knew when he came back to IndyCar that he was going to be a winner.”
It took a little adjustment though.
While finishing fourth in the series standings with a victory at Pocono and a pair of seconds, Montoya said the first half of the season which included a 15th-place finish at the same St. Pete race he just won, “really sucked.”
Indy cars had changed quite a bit while Montoya was away and he even found the different seating arrangement in IndyCars (at 5-foot-7, Montoya has to stretch to reach the pedals) difficult to deal with.
Roger Penske is known for fielding the best-prepared teams in the series, but even then Montoya and his crew had to get to know each other. Montoya also had to re-learn the cars, especially, as he puts it, “knowing what’s under the hood and when you want the car to get quicker.”
“It was frustrating getting my feet back on the ground,” he said. “I knew it was going to be a learning experience, and I had to do a lot of stuff to get where I needed to be.
“We gained a lot as the season went on, and I thought we were in very good position at the end.”
Of course, it helped to have a body of racing knowledge that applies in any type of racing.
“My data base is huge,” he said. “And in this profession experience is everything.
“I drive the same way as I did before, but I’m wiser about it. I can see what’s happening and calculate the outcome better.
So now, Montoya, who won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000 before departing for Formula One, is back, and on a team which boasts 2014 series champion Will Power and three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves along with Pagenaud, who is in his first year with Penske.
In their cool all-black attire, the Penske drivers and their crews walk through the paddock area with a distinctive swagger. Their 1-2-4-5 finish at St. Pete (Kanaan was third) backs that up, at least so far.
“It’s exciting to be part of an organization like that which has had so much success,” Montoya said. “And as a team, we push each other really hard to be the best.
“We’ll do whatever it takes to win. We’re the guys everybody else wants to be.”
There’s a flash of that take-no-prisoners attitude the younger Montoya so often showed.
But he’s no longer the bad guy. He and the fans in St. Pete celebrated loud and long.
“I came back to Indy cars because I wanted to have fun again, and I wanted to be in a winning car,” Montoya said. “I’ve got as much enthusiasm and passion for racing now as I did back when I was a kid in go-karts.
“That’s why I don’t feel old. As long as I keep winning, I never will.”