DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s 8:15 on an unusually chilly Florida morning, and Juan Pablo Montoya arrives at LPGA International looking less like the baddest dude in NASCAR (which he is) than a father of three (which he also is) who could use a few more hours of sleep.
He’s the headliner at the 38th annual Daytona 500 NASCAR Celebrity Golf Classic, one of a continuous stream of events leading up to the sport’s biggest race on Feb. 20.
There’s trepidation when you first meet Montoya. You know his reputation, you’ve seen the videos of his confrontations on and off the race track, you’ve read the comments about him on NASCAR fan sites.
That’s his alter ego. On the golf course, he’s relaxed, unguarded, even self-deprecating. A biting wind has put a damper on the occasion, but Montoya’s love of golf is still evident.
The 35-year-old Colombian took up golf in the 1990s, but got “hooked like a drug” when he started racing Formula One cars in 2001. He credits Germán Calle Jr. of Colombia’s Corporacion Internacional de Golf with teaching him the game. When Calle helped bring a Nationwide Tour event to the Country Club of Bogota last March, Montoya promoted it and hosted a pro-am during tournament week.
Golf is more than just a hobby. Montoya used to have a hitting net in his Miami home until his wife, Connie, decided that their three children needed the play space more than their father. He has been known to sneak in Saturday rounds during the season, but recently has cut back to focus on racing. He still has a Zelocity swing monitor at home and is an equipment wonk who personally adjusts the loft, lie and swing weight of all of his clubs.
He likes to tell the story of the day he picked up pal and fellow Colombian Camilo Villegas for a round of golf. Montoya quizzed Villegas about his golf shafts, while Villegas wanted to talk about the torque in Montoya’s car.
Finally, Montoya came to this conclusion: “He knew more about cars than I did, and I knew more about golf than he did.”
At LPGA International, Montoya, a compulsive collector of toys, was tricked out with a new TaylorMade R11 driver, TaylorMade MC Tour Preferred irons, and Adidas shoes emblazoned with “42,” the number of his car. (TaylorMade doesn’t sponsor Montoya, but the equipment maker supplies prizes for a tournament that his youth charity, Formula Smiles Foundation, holds in Colombia.) Before heading to Phoenix for a Feb. 27 race, Montoya plans to make a pit stop at TaylorMade’s Kingdom, in Carlsbad, Calif., to make sure his clubs are as fine-tuned as his Chevrolet race car.
He regularly shoots sub-80 rounds, and he sees some similarities between the self-control that racing and golf demand. Whether it’s a bad golf shot or a bad curve, you have to let it go and focus on what’s ahead. But Montoya says that he’s less intense on the golf course than he used to be. He has come to view golf as a respite from NASCAR, not another competitive forum. As his playing partners mulled which putt to hit on No. 7 at the Daytona scramble, Montoya gave his ball a casual one-handed swipe from 40 feet, then walked away laughing as it dropped for birdie.
At that moment, it was hard to imagine Montoya as NASCAR’s bête noire. It’s an image he happily embraces.
“I have no problem being (a jerk),” he says. “I have a very good reputation for being (a jerk). You’ve probably heard that.”
With that reputation comes a rabid fan base. He has 263,000 Twitter followers; by comparison, four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon has only 14,000 followers. But NASCAR fan sites have hung various monikers on him, ranging from the clever – “Juan Problemo” – to the unprintable. Montoya seems more amused than troubled by this.
At one point during his round in Daytona, Montoya leads a visitor over to Shayna Keller, his publicist.
“How many (public relations) people would tell you that you’re crazy to be working with me?” he asks.
“Ninety-five percent,” Keller says. “They’re afraid of you.”
Montoya smiles, clearly pleased. “I like that,” he says.
Montoya exploded onto the open-wheel racing scene in 1999, when he won a record seven CART races and the series championship as a 23-year-old rookie. A year later, he dusted the field in his first Indianapolis 500, winning after leading 167 of 200 laps.
From there, it was on to Formula One, the realization of Montoya’s racing dreams. In 2001, he racked up three pole positions and a victory, at the Italian Grand Prix.
His success came a little too quickly for some in the F1 crowd. Michael Schumacher, the circuit’s biggest star, was in the process of winning five consecutive world championships, and other drivers were relegated to second-class status. Montoya made it clear he wanted no part of the F1 caste system.
“I don’t like taking (crap) from anyone,” he says. “I was passing people, and people were shocked.”
In just his third F1 race, the Brazilian Grand Prix, Montoya stunned the field by blowing past Schumacher and seemed destined to win before a late crash.
Montoya, the brash, aggressive upstart, quickly became Schumacher’s antagonist and a lightning rod for racing fans. Montoya won seven times in five F1 seasons. But, he says, “I wasn’t enjoying myself.” He alludes, without elaborating, to F1 “politics.” What is clear is that the car is king in F1, and Schumacher’s Ferrari was dominating the circuit. In mid-2006, Montoya announced he would move to NASCAR.
“If you’re not in the right (F1) car the right year, you’re never going to win the championship,” he says. “(In NASCAR) I go out every weekend with the mindset that I have a chance to win.”
Montoya has won twice and posted 41 top 10s during his first four NASCAR seasons. But he set the bar so high during his open-wheel days that race fans expect more. His disappointing 2010 season was marked by crashes and engine problems. He finally won in August at Watkins Glen, the first of five consecutive top 10s, then won the pole at Talladega before finishing third. That bodes well heading into this weekend’s Daytona 500, which, like Talladega, is a restrictor-plate race.
“This year is going to be so much closer,” he says. “When you have a restrictor-plate race, it’s more about strategy, how you push, positioning yourself and team strategy. It’s going to be back to pure drafting and pushing.”
The day after playing golf at LPGA International, Montoya exited the Bud Shootout on lap 28, the result of a crash that occurred ahead of him and wiped out a quarter of the 24-car field. So it goes in NASCAR. Montoya remained upbeat, tweeting to his legions that “we have a great car for the 500!”
Montoya insists that his four years in NASCAR have “softened” him, that he’s “smarter,” that he’s “learned to play the game.” But with the Daytona 500 looming, he wants everyone to know that he still has the whatever-it-takes mentality on the race track.
“People gotta know that when it comes down to you and them, it’s gotta be you,” he says. “I’m the one that needs to come out on top.”