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INDIANAPOLIS -- You have to hand it to Roger Penske.
At 76 years of age, he remains one of the world's most competitive businessmen. And he shows no sign of slowing down.
|Juan Pablo Montoya had great success in his first go-round in American open-wheel racing, with a victory in the 2000 Indy 500 the peak.|
People like to say that auto racing is Penske's hobby, but in fact it may be the business he is the most serious about. Monday's announcement that Team Penske has signed Juan Pablo Montoya to drive its third car in the 2014 IZOD IndyCar Series is proof of that.
And make no mistake, this bolt out of the blue is all business.
In one fell swoop, Penske strengthened his Indy car team by adding a proven Indy car champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, eager for a fresh challenge, who will light a fire under incumbents Helio Castroneves and Will Power.
With his national and international fan base, Montoya's return is also a boost for Indy car racing as a whole, a business near and dear to Penske's heart.
Probably more than any other driver on earth, Montoya relishes the opportunity to beat Chip Ganassi -- who besides being the man who just cut ties with Montoya happens to be Penske's most bitter Indy car rival.
Seeking rejuvenation after coming to a crossroads in his uniquely varied career, Montoya is returning to a form of racing he dominated as an insouciant 20-something in 1999 and 2000.
Brash and aggressive, the 2000-era Montoya was anything but Penske material. But the 2013 version -- much more polished in terms of sponsor and media relations from his time in Formula One with Williams and McLaren and NASCAR with Ganassi -- is fully capable of handling the off-track demands of being a Penske driver.
It's a win/win for Montoya too: He's highly motivated to return to Indy cars, he's coming back by joining the sport's most prestigious team, and he maintains the ties with Chevrolet that he has built in NASCAR over the past seven years.
"When it was announced that I wasn't going to be in the 42 [Ganassi Sprint Cup] car next year, I really wanted to be in a winning car. That was No. 1 for me," Montoya said. "If you really dream of an ideal position for a driver, if you could race for Penske, I think that would be No. 1. So I'm really excited."
Speaking to reporters on a national teleconference, Montoya brushed off accusations that he had grown "fat and happy" in NASCAR but acknowledged that he will need to work on his fitness for the more physical demands of Indy car racing.
"The conditioning is a big part of it," said the 37-year-old. "You know, since the moment I became a free agent, I wanted the opportunity in open‑wheel and I've been training really hard. I know I have a long way to go to where I want to be. I know what it takes to be in the shape that you need to be in to win and be a champion.
"So I'm working towards that goal, and the good thing is that we've got a lot of time until the first race, so I've got a lot of time to prepare myself physically and mentally for it."
Although Castroneves is in position to win the first Indy car championship of his long American career, the nagging feeling still exists that the Penske Indy car team has underperformed for the past couple of years. Bringing on a third driver with Montoya's skill and swagger will undoubtedly shake things up.
The decision to sign the Colombian was driven as much by Penske Racing President Tim Cindric as it was by "The Captain" himself.
There's an old saying that when team owners spend their own money, they're racing for business rather than pleasure. And Cindric confirmed that not a single cent of sponsorship has been sourced for Montoya's effort.
"Once it got to the point where it really looked like it was something we could put it together, it really came down to Roger's commitment to the sport and Roger's commitment to winning," Cindric said. "The approach that we've taken, really, is: 'Let's put the competitive piece in play first.' Then hopefully we can sort the rest of it out.
"I guess one of the advantages we all have working for Roger is his commitment to winning comes before everything else."
After all, that's what it takes to succeed in business.