THE question: how will montoya adjust?
The recent announcement that Juan Pablo Montoya was leaving the seat of his Team McLaren Mercedes F1 MP4-21 to rejoin Chip Ganassi Racing and drive the No. 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge in the 2007 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series was a move that shocked the motorsport industry. The question on everyone’s mind is how JPM will fair in his first season pitted against stock car racing’s best.
We sat down with Indianapolis-based Chip Ganassi Racing’s long-time Managing Director Mike Hull and asked him “THE question”.
Question: Mike, JPM has signed a multi-year deal with the organization to compete in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series beginning in 2007. He will become the first Formula 1 regular to ever join the NEXTEL Cup ranks when he assumes the driving duties of No. 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge Charger next season. We know about the experience he had with Jeff Gordon at Indianapolis “Trading Paint” where the two traded rides for the day. History has shown that the open wheel–stock car transition is not easy, and JPM says he can’t wait to get behind the wheel. What do you see as his biggest challenge in terms of adjustment, and what makes him different than all the others before him?
Mike Hull: I think that when you rate a race car driver, you have to consider the environment they compete in. Therefore, you base a driver’s performance on how he stacks up with those other drivers he races against week in and week out. So in Juan’s case, his challenge won’t necessarily have anything to do with who he’s raced with in the past, it’s more of a question of how he’ll adapt to the NASCAR series. At the time in CART, he was the best. Period. On road courses, street courses, short ovals and superspeedways, he was a master of each discipline. That’s a very rare quality. So I guess the thing that he did to set himself apart was to develop this extremely short learning curve on the ovals. He simply knew how to adapt and keep the thing off the fence. The others before him that tried this kind of switch in racing had problems with that. Juan didn’t. So, his biggest challenge will be to demonstrate that ability to adapt again on the oval. The other thing you have to know about Juan is that he is infectious. He was so much fun to work with because he didn’t let anything stop him from getting absolutely everything out of the car. There wasn’t such thing as a bad day for him. He’ll try and find the best in everyone on the team and I think he’ll make it work.
Question: Another CGR great, Jimmy Vasser, won the 1996 CART Championship for the team and went on to try his hand in NASCAR, but a short-stint with mixed results ultimately led JV back to his open wheel roots. What did you make of his experience?
MH: I think Jimmy had all the natural ability in the world. He had an unbelievable instinct to drive a race car. You also have to keep in mind he was competitive in the few races he did in NASCAR. I think the difference there is that had Jimmy made a decision to give it 100% instead of considering the one-off’s here and there, he could have been quite successful. He didn’t have the chance to show his full potential. And obviously that takes time. Had he had the opportunity to do so I think Jimmy would have really made a mark in NASCAR.
Question: JPM is one of the best race car drivers in the world. [Team Owner]Chip [Ganassi] reminded us all of that at the press conference in Chicago. He’s a former CART Champion, Indy 500, GP of Monaco and Formula 1 winner – successful at every level. That obviously will bring a much needed veteran presence to that team. What kind of presence did JPM bring during his 1999 CART Championship season and the 2000 Indianapolis 500?
MH: Juan had this great ability to raise everyone’s game. You have to understand we weren’t exactly struggling when Juan came to us in 1999 in the CART series. We’d proven that we could get the job done with guys like Vasser and Alex Zanardi. But Juan showed us that every day we could be better than the day before. He expected the same drive, results and performance from the team as he did of himself. That is what makes him great.
Question: Finally, Mike, JPM rejoins the team with impressive open-wheel credentials. He has made 137 starts between the CART, IndyCar and Formula 1 Series’ where he’s tallied 18 wins. This is a guy that has had a history of getting in a car and winning – no matter the series or discipline. He will become the first Formula 1 driver in the 58-year history of NASCAR to compete on the circuit full-time. If you were to grade him in ’07, what criteria would you use to evaluate his performance?
MH: I think the way you have look at this is that the driver serves as the barometer for the entire race car team. In any situation, a team’s performance on Sunday is validated by the not only the driver’s result, but by how the team qualifies, and how they stand in the championship. You should always be moving forward and improving. And that’s exactly what Juan does. He’s a very talented driver, who can get a race team to continually up the ante. So in doing that, I think watching the week-to-week improvements, and how they find ways to get better – that will be the criteria to judge the program. Not just Juan, but the entire team.
Montoya will pilot the No. 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge Charger beginning in ’07 while running for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Rookie of the Year title along with an assortment of NASCAR Busch Series races. Texaco/Havoline will also be celebrating its 20th season as a primary NASCAR sponsor next season.
Here’s to JPM giving Texaco/Havoline and his CGRFS team a few more reasons to celebrate at the track in 2007.
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