Photo: Courtesy of IMSA

TORRES: Montoya the Misjudged Legend

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

Juan Pablo Montoya is arguably the top-five, maybe top-three greatest drivers of the last 30 years.

This isn’t a damn joke. I’m serious when I say this tremendous compliment.

I’ve said it over the past half decade that he is a legend in the world of motorsports and quite frankly one of the best versatile drivers that doesn’t get the respect he deserves.

After he and Team Penske co-driver Dane Cameron won their first IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the DPi category Saturday at the Motul Petit Le Mans in Road Atlanta, now it’s the perfect time to put the “Jet Dryer” jokes to damn rest.

Stop judging him for a freak accident from the 2012 Daytona 500 that had millions of fans in disbelief. It’s all people want to bring up when they think of the Colombian.

Not the astonishing accomplishments such as two Indianapolis 500 victories and taking the top step of the podium of the 2003 Monaco Grand Prix. One of two men to pull off this feat, the other being Graham Hill who every versatile racer should aspire to reach his level.

Okay, they’re incomparable for the most part because you can make a strong case for Hill being the GOAT (Greatest of All-Time) of Motorsports. However, the one thing you can compare these two greats is they were the best of their time.

People revere Hill but the same can’t be truly said about Montoya. The time better come soon because who knows how long the 44-year-old will continue racing. He still has a shot of joining Hill in the sport’s greatest honor which is the Triple Crown of Motorsport. All he needs is a 24 Hours of Le Mans triumph to seal the deal.

Montoya’s bid is overshadowed by Fernando Alonso’s quest as he needs an Indy 500 victory to join Hill. After Alonso failed to make the 103rd Indy 500, I saw a few people bring up Montoya as a greater driver than the two-time Formula One World Champion. It made me smile because at least there’s people out there that see Montoya as a fierce, determine and no guts, no glory kind of racer.

Not many could do what Montoya did such as leaving open wheel racing for several years, jump back in and perhaps became an even better driver. Sure, Montoya won the 1999 CART title as a rookie and when he jumped to Formula One in 2001, he was fast in that Williams BMW.

Williams were a few years removed from god awful mediocrity, so when he came along to be teammates with Ralf Schumacher. Montoya was a key role of their elevation back to relevance and often out shining the dominant Scuderia Ferrari duo of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello. Outside of reliability issues, the bane of Montoya’s existence in F1, 11 poles and four wins in his tenure certainly showed what kind of a raw talent he was in the early 2000s.

After giving NASCAR a go from 2006-13, his INDYCAR tenure with Roger Penske revived an otherwise misjudged career by winning three races and almost pulled the wire-to-wire championship in 2015. While his second tenure was short, I’d say he proved the nay-sayers wrong by proving he’s still competitive.

By running IMSA and capturing a title with Cameron this season after scoring three wins, it just further cements his undeniable legacy. Even before going full-time, Montoya already has three Rolex 24 victories under his belt and I’d image far from being done.

Now imagine if he and Cameron get a win at Daytona, but also Sebring next year. It’ll expand his golden resume that maybe everyone should hope that someday, Le Mans glory is on the horizon.

In 2018, Montoya got to run Le Mans for the first time, driving for United Autosports in the LMP2 class. He alongside Hugo de Sadeleer and Will Owen finished third in class (seventh overall).

If and when that day comes for Montoya to run the demanding high speed circuit again and even win overall, I sure hope the detractors look themselves at the mirror and give the proper respect he deserves.

I don’t think it’s that too difficult to ask? Right now, what will it take to get those detractors to recognize Montoya’s greatness?

Yeah, his NASCAR career wasn’t where he shined a lot but at least he was able to have moderate success like two Cup wins and making the playoffs in 2009. Other than A.J. Allmendinger, Montoya was the only one to succeed out of the open wheel racers who tried stock cars in the late 2000s.

It’s really a deep blasphemy people give the Colombian crap about a incident from over seven years ago, but that’s the unfortunate world of sports sometimes. They tend to remember the ultimate blemish than the accomplishments.

I feel Montoya is one of those individuals who shouldn’t be remembered for just crashing his red No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet into a jet dryer under caution.

Instead, try to remember him as a talented racer that’s had a storybook career the world may not see in the foreseeable future with guys being mostly exclusive to one racing discipline.

At the end of the day, everyone has their own perception of Montoya. To me, he’s one of the best to do it in the last 30 years. Not just the damn guy who slammed into a truck that engulfed in flames, which could’ve given Dave Blaney a Daytona 500 victory.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media and a three-time National Motorsports Press Association award winner in photography. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography with ambitions of having his work recognized.