Montoya Wins The Indy 500
May 28, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
In an Indianapolis 500 buoyed by an on-track CART-IRL showdown, CART came out on top -- easily.
Juan Montoya, driving for owner Chip Ganassi, ran away with the rain-delayed Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, winning by 7.1 seconds over 1996 Indy champion Buddy Lazier. Montoya's teammate, Jimmy Vasser, finished in seventh.
Montoya, the first rookie to win since Graham Hill in 1966, was untouchable as he led 167 of the 200 laps. He held off a late run by Lazier, who trimmed a 9.1-second Montoya lead to 7.1 seconds in the last 10 laps.
"The car was perfect," the 24-year-old Colombian and defending CART Series champion said. "Every person on this team worked so hard for this.
"We wanted to win here like we do any other race."
Eliseo Salazar, Jeff Ward, Eddie Cheever Jr., Robby Gordon, Vasser, Stephan Gregoire, Scott Goodyear and Scott Sharp rounded out the top-10 finishers.
In the early going, pole sitter Greg Ray appeared to have the car to beat. Ray, the 1999 Indy Racing Northern Light Series champion, led the first 26 laps. But, in a battle that was one of the best of the event, Montoya got the inside and drove around Ray on the front stretch during lap 27, only to have Ray retake the lead in Turn 1 on the next lap. Montoya recaptured the lead on the back straight then headed into the pits.
Pit stops were the aspects where the Ganassi team really proved its worth. Montoya took on four tires and fuel in 11 seconds. He came out of the green-flag stops with an 11.8-second lead over Gordon on the 34th lap. By lap 61, Montoya, who started second, had a 30.1-second lead, this time over Vasser.
Then, the contenders -- or pretenders on this day -- began falling out. First, Ray hit the wall, sending debris into the path of two-time winner Al Unser Jr., who was in his first Indy 500 since 1994. Unser and Ray were able to return to the track after their cars were repaired, but both were out of contention.
Unser's poor finish did little to diminish his enthusiasm for being back at Indy after clinching his second 500 in 1994 and then failing to qualify in 1995.
"It was great. To go around those pace laps and see those cheering fans and be back at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, it was incredible," Unser said. "We'll be back with a vengeance. It's too bad we have to wait 364 days for it."
After the race went green on lap 74, Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher got tangled up in the first turn. As a group of cars went into the turn three abreast, St. James found herself on the high side of Fisher. The two cars touched, sending both into the wall.
"I was stuck in the middle," said Fisher, who was the youngest driver in the field and the third woman to start the race. "I was a sitting duck in this case.
"Things do not go very nicely when you try to go three abreast."
When the race restarted, it was Robby McGehee's turn to take his shot at Montoya, but he, too, had nothing for the CART champion. McGehee, the 1999 Rookie of the Year, charged by Vasser, but could only get to within 14 seconds of Montoya.
A series of drivers -- including Salazar, Vasser, Ward and surprising rookie Airton Dare -- tried to run down Montoya in the second half of the race, but Montoya had them covered. Even when several yellow flags brought Montoya to within striking distance, Montoya repeatedly struck first, jumping out to big leads on the restarts.
The convincing win will give IRNLS critics ample ammunition to skewer claims that the IRNLS is on a level playing field with CART. Ganassi's CART team showed all month that it was ahead of its IRNLS rivals. Montoya and Vasser were both near the top of the speed charts each day with minimal practice time; they qualified second and seventh; and Montoya was the fastest on the final day of practice on Thursday in his race setup.
"The best team won," Vasser said. "I'm really happy for Juan."
"People should expect them to come in and win here," Sharp said. "They spend as much money in one race as other teams do in a year. So they should win."
"It's nice that they came over," Ward said. "He's a good driver and deserved to win. "I hope more of those guys come over, and I look forward to racing against them."
Be careful what you ask for.