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THE DAYTONA 500

His world at full tilt

Former Indy 500 winner Montoya's move from open-wheel racing to the Nextel Cup opens up possibilities for NASCAR

February 17, 2007|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Step off the elevator and into Juan Pablo Montoya's plush penthouse suite and the first thing you notice is the breathtaking view of Miami's Biscayne Bay beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows.

The view is so spectacular that if you look to the south -- there, beyond the horizon -- you can almost see to Colombia, where Montoya's father began teaching him to drive race cars about the same time he was teaching him to read.

But Montoya isn't the only one looking south from Florida these days. The hierarchy at NASCAR, which had an off year in 2006 after a decade of phenomenal growth, is also looking to Latin America -- and elsewhere -- in an effort to get stock car growth back up to speed.

All of which makes Montoya's decision to leave open-wheel racing to join Chip Ganassi's Nextel Cup team full time this season something of a godsend.

"Montoya choosing to run in the Nextel Cup series gives us a great moment to revel in, quite frankly," says NASCAR President Mike Helton. "The opportunities for us, they transcend borders. They're huge."

And timely. NASCAR kicks off its 2007 Nextel Cup season with Sunday's Daytona 500 after a year in which TV ratings rose for only three of the series' 36 races, dropping 6.5% overall on Fox, 5% on TNT and a whopping 10% on NBC. And although NASCAR tracks don't release firm attendance figures, fewer than half of last year's races sold out, and crowds for at least 12 races decreased.

No driver, even one with Montoya's sizable gifts, can turn that around alone. But the Colombian gives NASCAR a lot to work with.

First, there's his skill. The youngest driver to win a championship in the old CART series, and a winner of the Indianapolis 500 and the Grand Prix of Monaco, Montoya was an open-wheel superstar. And though drivers and fans in the wine-and-brie world of Formula One tend to look down their noses at stock cars, Montoya's defection seems likely to persuade at least some in the fractured world of open-wheel racing -- where CART's successor, the Champ Car World Series, and the Indy Racing League battle for sponsorships and fans -- to give NASCAR a look.

Then there's his personality. A handsome, charismatic 31-year-old, Montoya is bright and articulate in two languages -- something that will not only help NASCAR internationally but nationally as well, since more than a quarter of this year's Nextel Cup races will be run in Texas, California, Arizona and Florida, states with sizable Latino populations.

"Once the Spanish[-speaking] community can get to know this kid is out there, he's going to attract a whole new wave of clients," says Felix Sabates, co-owner of the Ganassi team. "He's a sponsor's dream."

He's also wealthy and something of a celebrity on two continents -- Europe and South America. In Colombia, for instance, kids don miniature versions of Montoya's fire suit on Halloween and he can't go out to dinner without being hounded by fans. (Which isn't entirely a bad thing. He met his wife Connie when she approached him for an autograph, and the couple now has two children.)

As a result, there's an air of both erudition and regality about Montoya, who has filled his 44th-floor bayside penthouse with works by Brazilian pop artist Romero Britto and who counts Mexican royalty -- singers Luis Miguel and Patty Manterola -- among his neighbors.

"He's bringing a whole new wave of people to the sport," Sabates says. "He's bringing flamboyance into the sport."

How many other NASCAR drivers spent Super Bowl Sunday on their 86-foot Italian yachts, 40 miles out to sea? ("There was nobody else out there," Montoya says with wonder.) Or more to the point for NASCAR, how many other drivers have websites on which 40% of the traffic comes from outside the U.S. -- not to mention the profiles in the Indian press or the fan website in Russia, www.montoya.ru?

"It's crazy," says Montoya, whose website has received hits from more than 100 countries. "I think it's because I'm different. I'm willing to try anything. I'm willing to go for anything. I think people appreciate that."

But the Cuban-born Sabates has seen another, less serious side of Montoya. He said the two often joke in Spanish -- still very much a foreign language in NASCAR garages -- sometimes making light of someone standing right next to them.

"He's very playful," Sabates says. "He's a jokester, really. Most of the Formula One guys, the ones I've met, are prima donnas. He's not that at all."

Despite his hero status at home, Montoya had a privileged childhood that was different from many in Colombia, where half the population lives in poverty. His father Pablo, a successful architect, designed and built the family's spacious A-frame house in a wooded area on the northern outskirts of Bogota, not far from the shantytowns that ring the capital.

A successful kart racer in his youth, Pablo also inspired his son's racing career, putting the boy behind the wheel for the first time when he was 5.

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