From The TimesJune 23, 2008
Juan Pablo Montoya: Nascar is better than F1
Juan Pablo Montoya
As Kimi Raikkonen failed to defend his French Grand Prix crown, 4,000 miles away another former McLaren driver was battling to record back-to-back circuit victories. Juan Pablo Montoya notched up seven wins in Formula One before quitting two years ago to drive supercharged stock cars in the American Nascar series.
Last night the Colombian hoped to repeat his only victory in the sport, in the Toyota/Save Mart 350, at the Infineon Raceway, in Sonoma, California, and he does not regret making the move. “Formula One drivers are convinced that they’re so much better than anyone else,” Montoya, who races alongside Dario Franchitti, the Scottish driver, for the Chip Ganassi team, said. “When I was in F1, every week I was on the podium. It was cool, but is it satisfying? It wasn’t, because it was the most boring races. The guy who started in front of you would drive away from you and the guy who was behind you would drop away from you, unless you f***ed up in qualifying and then you need to have a different pitstop strategy to beat them.”
The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, to give it its proper title, is barely known outside the United States, but within the country, its popularity dwarfs that of Formula One. Seventeen of the nation’s top 20 best-attended sporting events are Nascar races, and it is the second most-watched sport on television.
Montoya’s exit from McLaren resulted in Lewis Hamilton taking his seat in the car. He is a fan of the British driver, whom he refers to as a “good kid” and a “nice guy”, but he is blunt in his assessment of the 23-year-old’s popularity in America. “Go ask anybody here who is Lewis Hamilton,” he said. “Lewis who?”
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Whereas Formula One revels in the romantic notion of presenting the zenith of style and grace, Nascar delights in being bold, brash and loud. The supercharged road cars steam around predominantly oval tracks, with hundreds of overtaking manoeuvres per race. Fans park their motorhomes on the track infield, barbecuing and drinking as the drivers race around them. At the end, the race winner does not spray Moët et Chandon, but Budweiser.
Although Nascar is very much an American sport, there are attempts to raise its appeal outside the United States, to tap into the disaffection many feel with Formula One, whether through the Max Mosley saga or the the lack of competitive racing.
“It’s boring,” Montoya said. “It’s a shame because the technology these cars have and the amount of companies that are involved is unreal. I don’t know how big companies do it for such a long time without results.”
In Nascar, there are more than 40 cars racing wheel to wheel for up to three hours. “It’s harder here,” Montoya said. “When you run fifteenth, sometimes you think it sucks. But look at the big picture: fifteenth here is like sixth or seventh in F1, because there are twice as many cars. The incredible thing is here I run fifteenth or twentieth on average and there are four or five weeks in the year where I have a chance of winning. In F1 if you run sixth or seventh, you run sixth or seventh the whole year.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re running for the lead, or for 30th, you’re always racing somebody. That’s much better.”
Franchitti, a former winner of the Indianapolis 500, and one of Britain’s most successful racing drivers, joined Nascar this year, barely getting the chance to race before an 180mph collision left him with a broken ankle.
“It’s been a tough baptism,” the Scot said. “I thought it would be difficult, but I didn’t realise how difficult. The good thing is that I feel I know a lot more now about what to do.”
Franchitti will visit these shores in late July to promote the sport in the United Kingdom, where Sky Sports is covering races. “For anybody that loves cars, it’s entertainment that’s second to none,” he said. “If you want exciting racing, to watch people driving cars that are very difficult to drive, this is the answer.”
Sky Sports has exclusive coverage of each Nascar race for the next two years