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New kind of racer starts new venture in the New World

Juan Pablo Montoya, coming from the glitz of F1 in Europe, finds himself driving a stock car in Iowa. But "Gonzo" is with him.

By BRANT JAMES
Published October 5, 2006


NEWTON, Iowa - The sun peeks behind the Central Iowa Water Association tank tower, throwing long shadows across the cornfields aside Interstate 80. Dawn is breaking in this tiny burg east of Des Moines and west of nowhere, on the spotless new speedway and on the presumed rest of Juan Pablo Montoya's career.

A Colombian who at age 31 has won the Indianapolis 500, a CART championship and competed in some of the world's most storied climes in Formula One, he has come to oblivion to prepare for his new career as a Nextel Cup driver. This is his second day ever testing a stock car. He has one week before making his debut in an ARCA race Friday at Talladega Superspeedway.

Pablo Montoya has seen the world with his son but seems perfectly content here in a black Chip Ganassi Racing jacket and cap, stopwatch dangling from his wrist as his son is about to step inside his "J42" Dodge. Pablo Montoya, who like his son lives in Miami, knows why Juan Pablo is here. In four years, he would be an old man in F1. He wants the option to drive for another decade or more.

"He's a racer," Pablo Montoya said. "The rest is bull----."

That's why there is little worry about trading Monaco for Martinsville.

"This is exotic, too," Pablo Montoya said, sounding convincing thanks to a broad smile. "If you are a racing driver and you love racing, you don't care about the place you're going to race."

There is certainly a culture shock inside the garage this morning, however. Threadbare teams populate the ARCA series and this test. Ten feet away from three men in jeans wrenching on the Littleton Storm Service car, a dozen Ganassi engineers and managing director John Fernandez toil over two war wagons and four laptop computers.

Though amused by the differences between uber-sophisticated F1 machines and these carbureted beasts, Montoya is no prima donna. He had options to remain in F1, but his mind wandered back to a 2003 demonstration at Indianapolis where he and Nextel Cup driver Jeff Gordon swapped cars.

"I can do this," he thought.

Two phone conversations with a stunned Ganassi - with whom he won his Indy 500 and CART title - sealed a deal that would make him NASCAR's first full-time foreign driver.

"There's no doubt in my mind he can do it," Ganassi said. "He and I are both all-in on the table here on this deal, so we're going to make it work, one way or another."

Montoya has been welcomed into the series so far, in part because of his enthusiasm for what he predicts will be a "wild ride," in part because he has not been the snobbish F1 driver some envisioned.

"Do I think it will be easy? No," he said. "But if I didn't think I could do it, I wouldn't have gone for it."

Montoya might change NASCAR as much as it changes him. It would be amusing to hear drivers pick up his Euro slang. ("I got bullocked in Turn 2!") He might even create 42 new jobs in Nextel Cup because everyone is going to want a "Gonzo."

Gonzalo Mejia is more than Montoya's personal assistant. Montoya keeps his circle small and has been friends with Mejia since they raced together back home in Bogota. Now Mejia, 44, is Montoya's gentleman's gentleman, confidante, perhaps even his food taster when it comes time to learn the nuances between Carolina and Alabama barbecue.

"I'm not a guy with thousands of friends," Montoya said. "I'd rather have two proper ones than 20 that are not proper."

Mejia pops out of the hauler 15 minutes before the test, blinking in the cold wind and wiggling his fingers into Montoya's red-and-white Oakley driving gloves. He has a lot to learn about stock cars, too, and pokes his head into an empty spot whenever he's not in the way.

Later, when Montoya is ready to get in the car, Mejia places his hand between Montoya's head and the window frame - banging his head was never a worry in open wheel - and prepares him to drive like a squire readying a knight for battle.

First, Mejia removes the gloves one at a time, presenting them warmed and open for Montoya's hands. Then he affixes his earplugs, neck restraint, helmet. After watching and fussily helping a crewman hook closed the window netting, Mejia is ready to do it himself the next time.

"He likes everything just right," Mejia said, smiling.

Once Montoya makes it on the track after a wire problem, his times are increasingly fast, overall the third fastest of the day. Crew chief Brad Parrott and Pablo Montoya spend much of the afternoon comparing stopwatches and grinning.

"A couple of months ago, I said that JP from Columbia, S.C., is going to drive our car," Parrott said, grinning. "He's fun and full of his self, but he's determined to do well."

He is fitting in in every way.