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Indy victory validates Montoya among world's best drivers
Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS -- There is race-car politics, and then there is the artistry of Juan Montoya in a race car.

While his victory in the Indianapolis 500 can be seen as a win for CART in its rivalry with the Indy Racing League, Montoya's overwhelming performance validated his growing reputation as one of the world's great drivers.

Juan Montoya
After 500 miles at Indy, there is no doubt Juan Montoya is among the world's best drivers.

Nobody is more supportive of the 4-year-old IRL than A.J. Foyt -- or more critical of CART.

But even Foyt couldn't help but be impressed after Montoya led 167 of the 200 laps on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval.

"That kid's one hell of a race driver," said Foyt, who never led more than 146 laps in any of his four Indianapolis victories.

In fact, no Indy winner has led more laps than Montoya since Al Unser was out front for 190 trips around the 2.5-mile track in 1970, the first of his four victories here.

Nobody should be surprised by Montoya's ability, though. The 24-year-old Colombian has come a long way in a hurry.

He emerged in 1997 in the European Formula 3000 series, winning three races, placing second in the championship and taking rookie honors. The next season, Montoya won the title and earned a job as test driver for the Williams Formula One team.

On the recommendation of Frank Williams, the team owner, Chip Ganassi hired Montoya to replace reigning CART champion Alex Zanardi, who left for Formula One after the 1998 season.

Seven poles and seven wins later, Montoya was the top CART rookie and the champion of that series.

Eddie Cheever, who raced in Formula One and CART before becoming an owner-driver in the IRL, said, "He is a phenomenal talent."

The 1998 Indy winner added, "It will not be very long before we see Montoya winning Formula One races, and we'll be able to say he raced at Indy."

Neither Ganassi nor Montoya would confirm or deny reports the driver will move to Formula One next season, possibly with Williams.

But Montoya hinted as much Monday when, replying to a question about his future at Indy, said, "Sometime, if I get a chance, I'll come back."

Still, he leaves no doubt he enjoyed the Indy experience.

"To come out here and win this race is just big," Montoya said. "The crowd is so awesome, the place is so big and everybody knows about the Indy 500. I've never seen my father so excited as he was yesterday.

But Montoya is trying to remain composed amid all the acclaim.

"Last year I won the rookie of the year and CART championship," he said. "Yesterday, I won the Indy 500. These things are so big that they don't get in your head. They're above you. Things that size, you never get to realize them. I think other people will."

Ganassi broke ranks with the other CART teams to bring regular drivers Montoya and Jimmy Vasser to Indianapolis. He has avoided talking about the CART-IRL rivalry since his return to the speedway.

But he was not the least hesitant to speak about Montoya.

"The kid is an a great talent," Ganassi said. "He uses his head and he's got amazing ability to feel what the car is doing and make it do what he wants. There aren't many like him."
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