ST. PETERSBURG — Juan Pablo Montoya is learning to ride a bike all over again.
His bike, however, is the No. 2 Chevrolet car for Team Penske, as Montoya, the 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner, returns to the IndyCar Series after seven seasons in NASCAR.
Montoya is optimistic as he re-learns the nuances of an IndyCar in preparation for Sunday’s season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, but he realizes plenty of work lies ahead.
“When (I moved to) NASCAR, that was like, ‘Where the hell am I?’ The cars were very different,” said Montoya, who won two Sprint Cup races and finished sixth in the 2011 Daytona 500. “This is the opposite. In IndyCar, you can’t drive it hard enough, or, at least, I can’t yet. I’m leaving a lot on the table, which is the biggest thing.”
Montoya, 38, spent his entire NASCAR career with owner Chip Ganassi before it was announced in August that his contract for the No. 42 stock car would not be renewed.
“When we had good cars, we did good,” said Montoya, a native of Columbia. “When we had bad cars, we did bad. I think as a team we threw a lot of races away. When you’re not winning races, you notice the things you throw away.”
Montoya hasn’t run an IndyCar race since 2000, but he joins a Team Penske lineup loaded with talent in three-time St. Petersburg winner and three-time Indy 500 champ Helio Castroneves and Will Power.
He also knows what would be considered a successful return.
“Winning the Indy 500 and fighting for a championship, of course,” Montoya said. “You could say that would be a good season.”
For now, Montoya has been working on getting comfortable again behind the wheel of his IndyCar. The braking and tires are different, and he’s not trying to be too greedy with speed.
“If you push too hard, then you throw the car off and you spend the rest of the day repairing a car and you don’t learn anything,” Montoya said.
Montoya is also getting close to his new teammates, especially Castroneves, who once might have been considered a rival, an obstacle in Montoya’s way.
Power thinks having the trio working together has Team Penske going in the right direction.
“At the end of the day,” Power said, “we all understand we race each other on the track, but all season, we need to work together to find things that are going to help us be at the front.
“(Montoya) brought a lot of experience to the team. He’s already helped to point us in a good direction.”
“I’ve seen hundreds of videos of it, but that’s one of the hardest challenges — your first time on a street course,” Montoya said. “I think it’s going to be eye-opening and it’s going to be a slow-building weekend getting comfortable in the car. I’m never not comfortable in a car, but it’s something I’ve been getting better at.”
Just like learning to ride a bike again.
“It’s going to take me time to win,” Montoya said. “How much time? I don’t know. I’m not expecting to go out (in) the first race and win, to be honest. I have to understand strategies and everything. There’s a lot of strategy that goes in that, but I haven’t experienced it.
“But I will.”