Indy Rookie Montoya A Favorite To Win
May 23, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
"Every year is different. I came here, just tried doing my best," Montoya said Tuesday. "It's very simple. You push it to the limit and see what you come up with."
Already a champion in the rival CART series, the 24-year-old Colombian is an Indy rookie in name only.
He was not required to take the mandatory driving test - an unusual break in tradition. His preparation in practice was consistent and impressive, and he was by far the fastest qualifier among the seven first-year drivers in the starting lineup.
Barring a complete flop in the race, it's almost certain he also will be named rookie of the year Sunday night.
"I laugh about that, to be honest," he said of the "rookie" designation. "Even last year, when they considered me a rookie in CART.
"They've got their reasons to call me rookie. For ovals, I can see I was a rookie last year. But I've done two 500-mile races, big ovals as well. But that's like a tradition here, the way they do it. ... I don't mind. I don't have a problem with that."
Montoya began racing go-karts at age 5 and worked up to the British Formula Three series in 1996. He was second in the European Formula 3000 series in 1997 and won the series title in 1998.
Last year, he joined Ganassi Racing, won seven poles, seven races and became the youngest CART champion. This year, however, Montoya has not been as successful, 17th in the series standings with just nine points.
Team owner Chip Ganassi, a former driver, was the fastest rookie at Indianapolis in 1982. Montoya's teammate, Jimmy Vasser, was the fastest rookie in 1992.
Montoya qualified on Saturday at 223.372 mph. The only faster qualifier was Greg Ray, the defending Indy Racing League champion, whose later run at 223.471 pushed Montoya into the No. 2 starting spot in the middle of the front row.
The last rookie to start that high at Indianapolis was Tony Stewart, who qualified second in 1996 but moved over to the pole for the race after Scott Brayton was killed in practice.
The only rookie winner since 1927 was Graham Hill, a former Formula One champion, in 1966. Breaking that rookie jinx is not impossible, Montoya said.
"You just have to do everything right. That's all you've got to do, like any other race," he said. "Last year, I nearly won my first 500-mile race in Michigan but lost it by a quarter of a car-length.
"You've got to go around for 400 miles and then race for the last 100. You've got to save the equipment and then make the car right for the end of the race and be able to push it."
The other rookies, all of whom had to go through the annual Rookie Orientation Program, are Sam Hornish Jr., starting from the fifth of the 11 rows; Jason Leffler, row six; Sarah Fisher and Airton Dare, row seven; Jaques Lazier, row nine; and Andy Hillenburg, row 11.
"It's kind of weird for them to classify him as a rookie," Hornish said of Montoya. "He is here, but it's not really true. He's got a lot more experience in cars similar to this than most of the people in the rookie class have, so it's kind of difficult going up to him and compete for rookie of the year."
The annual rookie program began in 1981 and at first was optional. Except for 1983, when Teo Fabi declined the rookie program but set a track record in qualifications, every rookie of the year since has participated. Nigel Mansell, a Formula One champion, was excused because of a back injury but made it up later.
Now - despite another exception for Montoya - every first-year driver must participate in the series of 10-lap driving tests at increasing speeds.
"I think it's a pretty good crop of rookies," Hornish said. "There are definitely a couple rookies that are capable of winning it if everything falls the right way."
He puts himself in that category.
"I have to be patient for the first 450 miles and stay on the lead lap and work all day to make the car good enough for the last 50 miles where I can start passing some people," Hornish said.