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There’s an unwritten guide for first-time Indianapolis 500 drivers, seemingly passed down through the generations. Its tenets include respecting the oval, acknowledging the unique qualities of each of the four corners (identical in dimensions only) and paying heed to how it all may change from one moment to the next.
After all, you’re a rookie. You’re not expected to master the place immediately.
In 2000, Juan Pablo Montoya came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time. He defied the guide.
“I remember everybody telling me about the corners when you get there, how the track narrows, all those stories,” Montoya told The Blog earlier this week at a Team Penske gathering. “I remember I went out, it took me four laps to go wide-open and I’m waiting to see when the track is going to close up. It just never did. I’m like … OK.”
The 24-year-old Colombian, fresh off a CART title with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, attacked the 2.5-mile oval like a seasoned vet, leading 167 of 200 laps in winning that 2000 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie – virtually an unheard-of feat in the modern era.
In 1927, George Souders won as a rookie, and in 1928, Louis Meyer won as a rookie starter (he had driven in relief the year before). The next rookie winner would not come until Graham Hill in 1966, though the 37-year-old former Formula One World Champion wasn’t even the “500” Rookie of the Year – voters tabbed sixth-place finishing 26-year-old Jackie Stewart, who had qualified higher and was leading with 10 laps to go when his engine failed.
The next rookie champion was Montoya, and today the 39-year-old appreciates the feat a bit more. Especially considering this year will only be his third “500” start, as he went to Formula One in 2001 and eventually NASCAR before returning to the Verizon IndyCar Series with Roger Penske.
“Fifteen years, that was a long time ago,” Montoya said. “Hopefully I can win a second one this year and look back and go, ‘wow, two out of three.’”