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Montoya makes Indy triumph look easy
Associated Press


INDIANAPOLIS -- Juan Montoya looked in his rearview mirror as he crossed the finish line and saw nothing but asphalt and sky. That's how dominant he was in winning the Indianapolis 500, which found its newest star in its old establishment.

Montoya detoured from auto racing's civil war Sunday with a victory that was the strongest case yet for which side is best.

Juan Montoya
Juan Montoya said his victory was as much for his fans in native Colombia as it was for himself on Sunday.

The defending champion of Championship Auto Racing Teams series made car owner Chip Ganassi look brilliant for his decision to return to the Indy Racing League's biggest event after a four-year absence. Montoya overwhelmed the rest of the 33-car field, leading 167 of the 200 laps and taking the checkered flag with his closest competitor still in the fourth turn on the 2.5-mile oval.

As the driver he plucked from virtual obscurity a year earlier crossed the finish line while thrusting his fist in the air, Ganassi shouted into his radio: "You're world famous now."

The 24-year-old Colombian fended off a late challenge from 1996 winner Buddy Lazier, passed teammate Jimmy Vasser to retake the lead 21 laps from the end and raced on to become Indy's first rookie champion since Graham Hill in 1966.

Many will view the victory by Target/Chip Ganassi Racing as a win for CART, whose big-name teams and drivers had boycotted Indy since the IRL began in 1996.

But there was nothing political about the slow post-race ride that Montoya and Ganassi took around the track atop a convertible, with many of the 400,000 spectators screaming their approval of the win by CART's most dominant team.

"We're here like any other IRL team," said Montoya, a seven-time CART winner last year as a rookie. "We're not here with a CART flag."

But John Menard, one of the original IRL team owners, saw Montoya's overwhelming victory as proof that the newer open-wheel series is not yet a match for CART.

"They raised the level of competition to a whole new level," said Menard, who fielded cars Sunday for pole-winner Greg Ray, the defending IRL champion, and Robby Gordon. "It's certainly going to raise some questions about the ability of the IRL teams to compete with CART.

"But they were the best of the best; a very powerful team, a very organized team."

Tony George, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and founder of the IRL, defended his creation and said he doesn't care who wins -- as long as it's good racing.

"I'd like to see whoever wants to run," he said. "It takes a commitment. We have a whole year to see who's interested."

Montoya seemed unaffected by the tradition of Indy and the electricity at the 84th running of the event billed as "the greatest spectacle in racing."

Smiling, but not appearing very excited, Montoya said he doesn't feel world famous.

"But I'm happier than I was about an hour ago," he said while eating cookies during the post-race news conference. "To be honest, I was joking with Chip over the radio. The car was perfect. We didn't have to risk anything."

Ganassi, whose team has won an unprecedented four straight CART titles, called the victory the "biggest moment of my life right now."

"This is still the biggest race in the world," he said.

Montoya and Vasser had a right to be more tired than the other drivers. They drove Saturday in the CART race in Nazareth, Pa., postponed last month by snow.

Everything seemed to work for Ganassi on Sunday, even the three-hour rain delay at the start of the race.

Ganassi, co-owner of the team that won Indy with Emerson Fittipaldi in 1989, said it helped his drivers loosen up.

Vasser was almost as strong as Montoya. The 1996 CART champion wound up a lap down in seventh after a late stop for fuel.

It was an incredible performance for Ganassi's team, which had to adapt to different chassis and engines than used in its regular series. Ganassi is the only CART owner to bring his regular drivers to Indy since 1996.

Montoya dueled early with Ray and made a spectacular pass in the middle of slower traffic to take the lead for the first time on lap 27.

Ray regained the lead the next time around, passing Montoya on the backstretch, but the Colombian came out of the first series of pit stops in front and was hardly challenged the rest of the way.

Lazier, whose win in the 500 came in the first year CART boycotted Indy, made the biggest run at Montoya.

He passed Jeff Ward to take second place on lap 151 and began to chase Montoya's G Force-Aurora in earnest.

Lazier stayed within 2 seconds of Montoya until the leader pulled away just moments before Stan Wattles' blown engine on lap 174 brought out the last of seven caution flags.

All of the leaders except Vasser, who had been running seventh, made their final stops. When the green flag waved for the start of lap 178, Vasser was leading Montoya on the track.

Montoya needed just two laps to put his teammate into second place. It then took Lazier until lap 193 to get past Vasser. By then, it was too late.

Montoya crossed the finish line 7.184 seconds -- nearly a full straightaway -- ahead of Lazier's Dallara-Aurora. He averaged 167.496 mph and won $1,235,690 of a record purse of $9,476,505.

During Sunday night's victory dinner, Montoya was honored as rookie of the year. Eddie Cheever Jr., the 1998 winner, praised Montoya as someone "who has an awful passion for racing," adding, "You have a tremendous talent."

Vasser thanked Ganassi for "having the guts to put it on the line."

"I hope car owners follow his lead," he said.

Ward and Eliseo Salazar, both driving for A.J. Foyt, finished third and fourth. Foyt won last year with driver Kenny Brack, now in CART.

Eddie Cheever Jr., the 1998 winner, was fifth, followed by Gordon, who left Indianapolis and flew to Charlotte, N.C., where he hoped to become the third driver to race in both Indy and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.

Lazier was frustrated throughout the race by slower cars that made it difficult for him to pass.

"We had a really good car," he said. "If I would have been able to get through the way Juan got through, I would have had a chance. Every time we got in traffic, I got hammered."

Several drivers who might have been able to challenge Montoya failed to finish the race.

Ray caused two cautions, crashing on lap 65 and, after his team scrambled to repair his car, hitting it again in almost the same place in turn two on lap 144.

Al Unser Jr., a two-time Indy winner, was back for the first time since 1996 after switching from CART to the IRL. He had moved from 18th at the start into the top 10 before debris from Ray's first crash punctured his radiator. That knocked him out of contention and eventually out of the race.

This was the first Indy race with two female drivers, but both were taken out in the same accident. Nineteen-year-old Sarah Fisher, making her first start in the 500, was sandwiched between Lyn St. James and Jaques Lazier on lap 74.

St. James, the oldest driver in the race at 53, and Fisher, the youngest, touched wheels, sending both into the wall.

Rookie Sam Hornish Jr. also crashed, on lap 162, but none of the drivers involved in the wrecks was injured.
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