July 10, 2006

Montoya switch bigger for NASCAR than Formula One

By Alan Baldwin

LONDON (Reuters) - NASCAR will welcome Juan Pablo Montoya
more than Formula One will miss the hot-tempered Colombian.

The McLaren driver's decision at the weekend to trade the
glamour of grands prix for the good ol' boys of U.S. stock car
racing in 2007 made more than a ripple on both sides of the

Montoya and Chip Ganassi, the team owner with whom he won
the CART title in 1999 and Indy 500 at the first attempt in
2000, announced on Sunday that they were joining forces again
in a multi-year deal.

If the main reaction in Europe was surprise, it was not so
much because the 30-year-old race winner -- one of the sport's
big names -- was turning his back on Formula One but where he
was going.

Formula One, with an emphasis on cutting-edge technology
but little overtaking, is to the rough and tough, wheel-banging
world of NASCAR what steak and champagne are to hot-dogs and

Montoya's exit will have little impact on the Formula One
driver market, with the Colombian already struggling to find a
race seat for 2007 in the face of general disinterest.

McLaren have signed Renault's world champion Fernando
Alonso for next year and have young Britons Lewis Hamilton and
Gary Paffett waiting in the wings if Kimi Raikkonen goes to
Ferrari or Renault as expected.

Montoya had plenty of admirers, particularly for the way in
which he squared up to Ferrari's Michael Schumacher and refused
to be intimidated.

But times have moved on. Schumacher is no longer the
dominant champion and Montoya, who shunted team mate Raikkonen
out of this month's U.S. Grand Prix at the first corner, was
running out of options.


"The thing is, why would anyone want Montoya?," one
unidentified team principal told Britain's Autosport magazine
last week.

"We know he can be quick, but he comes with so much baggage
and seems to have lost some of the fire he had at Williams.
There are almost certainly better options now."

Frank Williams, whose team gave Montoya his Formula One
debut in 2001, expressed some regret, however.

"Juan is a feisty and very determined driver and when he
was really on form his overtaking ability was outstanding," he
told the Guardian newspaper. "But he always liked racing in the
USA and in a sense this decision means that he's returning

NASCAR bosses have reason to be delighted. Montoya is a
hero to millions of Hispanic motor racing fans and ticks all
the right boxes.

"It's an historic announcement to have someone of his
international success and caliber," NASCAR president Mike
Helton said at the weekend.

"Anybody who follows motor sports naturally would know his
name. It puts us on an equal plane with every form of motor
sports there is internationally."

Montoya added: "To be able to help NASCAR expand into the
Latin market with a Hispanic driver is good. I think we're all
winners here."

Ganassi said that Montoya had called him up and told him he
wanted to drive the number 42 Dodge vacated by Casey Mears.
Money was not a factor.

"When people think of moving from Formula One to NASCAR,
some people think I'm crazy," Montoya told reporters in

"But I think it's exciting. I think it's a great challenge
for my career. Coming here is probably going to be my toughest
challenge ever."