Montoya all the way at Indy
29 May 2000
Reigning CART champion Juan Montoya withstood the challenge from the IRL's best talent to record a dominant victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, taking the lead from Greg Ray on lap 26 and very rarely relinquishing it. Behind the Colombian, a number of drivers furiously scrapped for the remaining podium positions in what was an absorbing race from start to finish.
Rain, the chief enemy of all oval circuits, struck Indianapolis on Sunday and when the scheduled start time came around, the 2.5 mile Superspeedway was extremely damp meaning that no racing would be possible for some time. The circuit maintenance team were quickly in action once the rain had cleared and as the teams and drivers waited pensively in the pit-lane, a number of jet dryers were dispatched in order to get the track into a suitable condition.
Nobody wanted to take any risks with circuit water before such a major event and nearly three hours had passed before track officials gave the all clear.
In the garage area the tension had been escalating all morning, the delay was prolonging any nerves the 33 waiting drivers may have had. The drivers also knew that when they finally made it out onto the track, grip levels would be vastly different from those experienced in practice and qualifying. The combination of rain and jet drying would have removed most of the laid down rubber on the racing line leaving the circuit very 'green'.
All these uncertainties simply added to the tension and when Mari Hulman George, chairman of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Board, uttered the magic words, “Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines,” over a quarter of a million spectators burst into a deafening cheer, almost drowning the engines out.
The entire field circulated the track for several pace laps, ER star Anthony Edwards behind the wheel of the pace car, before pole sitter Greg Ray led the pack onto the starting straight to take the green flag. The race was away at the first time of asking and into turn one, fourth place starter Robby Gordon dived to the inside and tried to wrest the lead from his Menard team-mate. Contact was somehow avoided and Ray held the line, cutting across Gordon's bows to remain in the lead, costing Gordon some momentum. Capitalising on Gordon's misjudgement, Montoya swept by into second coming onto the back straight.
Behind the lead trio, everyone else had got away cleanly and were being led by Eliseo Salazar (3rd on the grid) from Scott Sharp, Jeff Ward, Jimmy Vasser and Eddie Cheever.
Once into the clean air, defending IRL champion Ray set about opening up a lead over his pursuers and over the next few laps he drew out a second advantage over Montoya who had a similar gap back to Gordon and Salazar. The field as a whole stayed remarkably close in the opening laps with everyone keeping on their toes as they acclimatised themselves to the track conditions.
It wasn't until lap 15 did the leaders encounter slower traffic and as Ray held back slightly, Montoya and Gordon closed in on the leader only to lose ground again as Ray began to use the slower cars to his advantage. As the traffic began to thicken, Gordon surprised Montoya and nipped by to take second only to be re-passed when he was held up behind Lyn St James. Salazar also moved ahead of Gordon to take third and by lap 20 was looking for a way past Montoya.
The Target/Chip Ganassi driver had other ideas however and on lap 24 as the leaders negotiated heavy traffic the Colombian feigned a late move to the outside of turn one. Ray staved off the challenge but on the next lap Montoya was not to be denied. In a truly breathtaking manoeuvre, Montoya used the traffic to his advantage, hugging the inside pit wall as the drivers ran four wide down the main straight to sweep into the lead at turn one. His joy was short-lived however as once Ray had regained his composure he latched his Team Menard Dallara onto the gearbox of his rival's G Force re-taking the lead on lap 27 only for Montoya to reverse the positions again a lap later. With Salazar and Gordon still in close attendance the race was already turning into a gripping affair.
As the race reached the 30 lap ark Ray peeled off into the pits to begin the first round of pit-stops. A good stop by his crew was nearly spoiled when Greg nearly stalled the car but was able to get away without any other undue hassles. As the field poured into the pits at regular intervals the order was thrown into confusion with Robby McGehee moving into top spot for a while, his Meijer Racing G Force getting better fuel mileage than everyone else. However once McGehee finally pitted Montoya re-emerged as the leader with a clear advantage over Gordon now in second. Salazar was third while Ray had dropped behind Eddie Cheever and was now running in fifth with Jeff Ward in close company behind him.
Another driver on the move was Buddy Lazier, for after starting 16th, the 1996 winner had moved into seventh spot, just having overcoming Vasser in the second Chip Ganassi machine. Scott Sharp had dropped back to twelfth during the pit-stops leaving Al Unser Jr, up from 18th on the grid and looking dangerous, and Mark Dismore to round out the top ten.
Anyone who thought the race might settle down as the leaders reached quarter distance were proved wrong as the racing out on the track was still as frantic as ever. Cheever was now the man on the move as the race approached the 50 lap mark, the 1998 winner powering passed Salazar to take third and hassling Gordon for second. Ward also moved up the order, disposing of Ray while Lazier now moved onto the tail of the defending IRL champion.
At 50 laps just 16 cars remained on the lead lap but surprisingly all 33 cars were still running although Johnny Unser had lost several laps in the pits early on and was running some way off the pace. Those not on the lead lap at this stage included Sarah Fisher who, after running comfortably in the top 20 in the opening laps, stalled during her pit-stop and had dropped to 25th overall. Richie Hearn was even further back in 28th place, having very little luck at the track where he performed so well on his rookie appearance in 1996.
Up at the front, Montoya was stretching his lead almost as he wished and had opened up a healthy seven second lead over Gordon who, in turn, was more than ten seconds clear of Salazar, the Chilean having re-passed Cheever. There was still action aplenty on the track as first Lazier battled passed Ray for sixth and then homed in on Ward. Cheever was now desperately trying to regain his lost position from Salazar with Ward and Lazier also entertaining the crowd with a fraught duel for fifth. Behind Ray who was now back in seventh place, Vasser, Unser Jr and McGehee were now engaging in a dice for eighth, ninth and tenth.
As the 60 lap mark approached Lazier was able to outmanoeuvre Ward in traffic and take fifth when the second round of pit-stops began. All the leaders made their stops with no major problems and Montoya easily maintained his lead from Gordon and Lazier, whose Hemelgarn crew put in an excellent stop to move him ahead of Salazar and Cheever. Then Greg Ray crashed.
Having looked ill at ease with his car once his early lead had been lost, and with his car developing a front end push, Ray slipped up high in turn two with inevitable results. The car suffered some front end damage in the impact although Ray was able to make it back to the pits where his crew assessed the damage. Whatever the possibility of the car being fixed, Ray's day as chief IRL torch holder was over.
“It's unfortunate, we had a pretty good car and we could run by ourselves, but in traffic our gears were too long so we took some downforce out of the car at the second pit-stop,” explained a dejected Ray. “With the wind, I think it just caught me out in turn two and that was it.” Ray would return to the track eventually after losing almost 70 laps.
Although his accident was very much a solo effort, Ray was not the only driver to suffer as Unser Jr had ran over a piece of Dallara debris and punctured his radiator, sending 'Little Al' behind the wall. This was particularly sad for Al who had just moved into a challenging position and was using his extensive circuit knowledge to his advantage. After making a brief return to the track Al gave up the unequal struggle.
No sooner had the field been unleashed from the first caution, a second yellow flag period was initiated by Sarah Fisher and Lyn St James. Going into the turn one with Fisher on the inside, rookie Andy Hillenburg saw a gap at the bottom of the race track and went for it pushing Fisher off line. Three abreast simply doesn't go into turn one at Indy and as Fisher was forced higher and higher into St James, trying to stay out of the way on the high line. Wheels rubbed and St James was spat into the wall causing heavy damage to her G Force while Fisher, struggling for grip in her damaged car, prevented a major impact with the wall and coasted to a halt with a puncture. Hillenburg continued unscathed but both female participants were out on the spot.
Once again the field lined up behind the pace car with Montoya leading. Some of the leaders took the opportunity to make a pit stop including Lazier, Salazar, Gordon and Ward, thus promoting Vasser to second. Only nine cars now remained on the lead lap, the others being McGehee in third, impressive rookie Airton Dare up to fourth from 20th on the grid, Salazar, Ward, Gordon, Cheever and Lazier. Just off the lead lap and directly behind Montoya on the re-start, Dismore, Sharp and Scott Goodyear were all battling for tenth, trying to get their lap back in the process.
When the green flag flew on lap 85 Montoya soon dashed any hopes of those trying to unlap themselves by calmly asserting himself at the front although behind him there was a great deal of shuffling around. McGehee hustled past Vasser for second but could not make any impression into Montoya's eleven second lead while Dare and Salazar closed in on Vasser to make it a four car battle for second.
As the halfway mark approached Hillenburg's debut at Indy ended with a wheel bearing problem and Hearn retired with an electrical fault. IRL points leader Robbie Buhl also pulled out before halfway with an engine failure, but with Jimmy Kite being the only other retirement in the first half of the race there were still 25 cars circulating at the 100 lap mark.
The battle for second was now at full tilt with the four protagonists driving really forcefully as they darted in and out amongst traffic with McGehee still holding off Vasser. However Dare had other ideas and when Vasser hesitated behind a slower car in one of the short chute's, the young Brazilian was through. Just as Dare took third, another caution was thrown for debris on the race track. All the leaders chose to pit and despite the crowded atmosphere, there were no accidents in the pits all day, a credit to the drivers. On this particular occasion, Montoya's crew did another exceptional job as did the Ganassi team as a whole, for when the cars rejoined the circuit, Vasser now held second from Dare while McGehee dropped to fourth. Ward was still a factor in fifth as was Salazar in sixth and Lazier, not far back in seventh.
During the caution Montoya completed his 101st lap meaning that if the rain were to return, the race would be declared a result. Not that the Colombian was too concerned about rain as he swiftly extended his lead to just over four seconds while Ward moved into second, disposing with Dare and Vasser in quick succession. Lazier's car was also responding well to the few changes his team had made and he had now moved into fourth ahead of Dare who was being harried by Salazar. Infact at 110 laps, second to seventh places were separated by just a few seconds and over the course of the next 20 laps the order fluctuated greatly as each driver gained and lost momentum in the stream of air.
With the amount of place changing going on behind, Montoya had almost gone on unnoticed and by lap 125 had quietly built up a handy ten second cushion over Lazier who had forced his way up from seventh place in just20 laps. Ward was still third ahead of Dare, who had early defied the odds by going three wide into turn one with Salazar and Cheever and passing them both on the inside. Cheever was now up to fifth after biding his time and picking off Gordon, Salazar and then Vasser who had dropped to sixth and seventh respectively. Gordon was next along, watching the action unfold from a reasonable proximity while McGehee had fallen off the pace and gone a lap down, he would eventually finish a distant 21st.
On lap 127 Dare's fine rookie run came to a smoky halt on the front straight and the caution again came out. All the leaders pitted allowing Montoya once again to retain his lead with Ward gaining a place and moving past Lazier to take second. On the re-start Lazier wasted little time in rectifying the situation and resumed his chase of the fleeting Target car, now two seconds up the road. Vasser sat in fourth although he was soon to be challenged by Salazar who had earlier passed Gordon and was now making inroads into Target car.
With just over 50 laps of the race remaining Greg Ray, running last in his repaired car suddenly hit the wall again in turn two and coasted to a more permanent halt. A T.V replay later showed that the car refused to turn into the corner, possibly a legacy of the initial crash, leaving Ray as nothing more than a passenger. It was a sad way for the day to end for Greg who was carrying the hopes of a lot more people than he thought.
Once again the leaders dived for the pit area where the Ganassi crew put in a blinding effort, sending Montoya on his way in under ten seconds. Ward and Lazier also had fast stops and when the action resumed they were within striking distance of the leader, Lazier ahead. With only nine seconds separating the top seven drivers the remaining 50 laps were turning into something special as Cheever now made his bid for victory, picking off Vasser for fifth place and charging up behind fourth placed Salazar when Sam Hornish Jr brought out the day's sixth caution period on lap160.
With 40 laps remaining only Vasser pitted, gambling on running the final 40 laps on just one tank of fuel. Lazier was now directly behind Montoya for the re-start on lap 162 and on lap 163 he looked inside the Colombian as the two approached turn one. On the following lap he made a more concerted effort but Montoya held on. Salazar was now third followed in quick succession by Ward, Cheever, Gordon and Vasser.
For the next several laps, the gap between 1st and 2nd stabilised at half a second with Salazar a further two seconds in arrears. Then on lap 170 Lazier was caught in traffic allowing Montoya to make a decisive break and Salazar to close right up on the Hemelgarn machine, the Chilean taking the place on the next lap. Montoya pulled out a four second gap to Salazar but that was erased when Stan Wattles had an engine let go bringing out the seventh and final caution period of the day. This gave the leaders the chance to make their final pit stops without any problems and enabled Vasser to take the lead by virtue of his differing strategy.
Any hopes of victory held by Vasser were soon extinguished when his team-mate blasted past him shortly after the lap 178 re-start. Jimmy's car was becoming visibly loose and he could do nothing as Montoya swiftly put a three second buffer between the two. Salazar still held third but was being reeled in by Lazier who finally forced his way through with 15 laps remaining.
Despite the seven second deficit to the leader, Buddy quickly set about eating into the gap and within six laps of passing Salazar he took Vasser for second. However the delay caused in the struggle allowed Montoya to increase his lead to an unassailable ten seconds with just eight laps remaining. Behind these two, Ward now ran in fourth ahead of Salazar with Cheever and Gordon battling tooth and nail for sixth.
With just four laps to go Vasser peeled off turn four and drove down pit-lane, his fuel tank dry. The ensuing splash 'n dash cost Vasser a lap and he emerged in seventh, a lap down and not entirely thrilled by his team's strategy.
Montoya, in Chip Ganassi's other car calmly reeled off the remaining laps to become the first rookie to win at Indy since Graham Hill in 1966. He eased up his pace in the final laps and allowed Lazier to close to within seven seconds at the flag. Salazar won back third in the late stages from Ward who just, (and I mean just) held off Cheever at the flag. Robby Gordon completed the unlapped runners in sixth after a solid run.
Speaking on the pit wall as Montoya completed his slowing down lap, Chip Ganassi praised his driver's efforts. “That kid is unbelievable. He is the best driver in the world right now, it's that simple.”
In victory lane Montoya was no less thrilled than his team boss saying, “I'm so happy. The only time it got a bit scary was when Lazier got close to me, at that time I thought it was going to be difficult but I tried so hard. This is beautiful for everyone at Target [Chip Ganassi Racing]. Thank you very much.”
Lazier was disappointed to finish second but at least had the small consolation of taking the IRL points lead from Robbie Buhl. Once Ray went out, he was Montoya's strongest and most consistent challenger, although that didn't mean much to Lazier as he could only watch Montoya swig the traditional Indy 500 winner's milk.
Salazar was another to run strongly all day, finishing where he started while Ward at times was the fastest man on the track in his climb to fourth. Cheever overcame a late race vibration to take fifth in his Infiniti powered Dallara. The rain delay prevented Robby Gordon from taking his 42nd place on the Coca Cola 600 grid although one feels he enjoyed battling for the lead at Indy somewhat more.
Behind a disgruntled Vasser in eighth place came Stephan Gregoire who drove a strong race, spending much of it dicing with Scott Goodyear, Scott Sharp and Mark Dismore for the final three places inside the top ten. Behind Gregoire, Goodyear came home ninth after a consistent, if unspectacular run while Sharp completed the top ten despite losing a second lap to Montoya near the end. Dismore was the eventual loser of the battle and he came home eleventh.
Behind this quartet Donnie Beechler, Jacques Lazier, Jeret Schroeder and Billy Boat completed the top 15, all two laps adrift.
In the end there were an impressive 22 cars running with Johnny Unser bringing up the rear, 14 laps down. In what is traditionally a car breaking race only seven drivers retired through mechanical problems, a credit to the teams and the car builders. Another positive aspect to come out of the race is that the IRL's traditional bugbear – gearboxes – behaved themselves on all 33 machines, not one retirement being attributed to gearbox failure.
It would be all too easy to call the 84th Indy 500 a demonstration run for Juan Montoya, the fact he led 167 of 200 laps ably supporting that claim, but although he often held a considerable lead over his followers he was still charging at 100 per cent and was not allowed to ease up until the final five laps. The racing behind Montoya was both exciting and clean with one driver after another lining up to take a shot at the Colombian but at the end of the day Juan came, Juan saw and Juan won.