When Juan Pablo Montoya made the transition from open-wheel racing to NASCAR three years ago there were a number of new concepts he was forced to learn. The adjustment from the sleek, high-tech Formula One cars to the heavier and boxier stock cars was a big hurdle to overcome, but perhaps the biggest adjustment Montoya had to learn was working with the competition.
In other forms of racing – open-wheel especially – the competition amongst the drivers and the teams is intense to say the least, both on and off the track. In Formula One, hordes of engineers and scientists have poured countless amounts of money into their programs and sharing tips and advice is rare to say the least. The NASCAR garage is a much different place. With teams working in close quarters week-in and week-out the atmosphere of the NASCAR garage is a much friendlier one.
“Yeah, it makes no sense,” Montoya explained. “There’s something great about this sport. People are really open about it. Once you’re on the race track you are by yourself. You’re on your own. Off the race track you can go to anybody and they’ll help you. That is great to see.”
After coming over from open-wheel racing, Montoya admitted he was struck by just how open other drivers are and the fact they go out of their way to help. The former Indy 500 champion’s first experience with this openness happened early in his transition to stock cars.
“The first person that did it was Kevin Harvick,” described Montoya. “We were testing in Miami for that first Cup race and there was an open test there and he came down and said you’ve got to try to do this. I didn’t even go to him, he came to me and said you’ve got to go a little deeper and do a little of this and a little of that. I was like, are you kidding me? You actually came here to help me?
“It’s crazy because in Formula One if you see somebody doing something wrong you probably actually enjoy it and don’t help them,” Montoya pointed out.
Working over the last three years to become the contender he is today, Montoya explained there is something to learn from everyone in the garage. Taping the experience of drivers such as Mark Martin, Montoya has emerged as one of the strongest threats during this year’s Chase.
“I ask Mark Martin a lot of questions and he helps me out a lot. Whatever I need and it’s very helpful,” said Montoya. “On the race track, whoever is doing something different you’ve got to see how they are doing it and how they are making it work, anybody from the front of the grid to the back of the grid.”
Coming up the ranks in a much different era, Martin has been one of the main go-to guys for advice in the NASCAR garage. During his American Speed Association (ASA) days, Martin traded set-ups and techniques with fellow competitors such as Rusty Wallace and Dick Trickle. That experience and openness has allowed the 50-year-old veteran to provide honest and sound advice – even to some of his biggest competitors.
With all of this openness and sharing going on in the NASCAR garage, where do drivers draw the line?
“When they’re beating you, you stop,” former open-wheel convert Tony Stewart said with a smile. “When they’re out-running you, you go back to them and say ‘hey, now what do I need to do?’ You don’t tell them how to do everything, but you explain to them the etiquette involved and little things that will help as the day goes on. It’s not always things that is going to help them beat you, but it’s things that are going to help them have a more enjoyable day and keep them from having problems at the race track.”
"Do I think (Juan Pablo) Montoya could beat me? Sometimes,” Martin admitted. “He's probably going to beat me whether I answer his question honestly or not. And I'd much rather be honest than dishonest. And I'm flattered that he asked me the questions. He'll figure out a way to beat me on any given day whether I answer honestly or not. So, we don't share technical race car information today like we did 15 years ago. Rusty and I always told each other what we had in our cars 15 years ago here at Martinsville. And the drivers don't do that.”
Another open-wheel convert that is trying to make his mark in NASCAR is Italian-born Max Papis. After eight years in the CART Series, two in the IndyCar Series and one year racing on the F1 circuit, Papis has spent the last four years learning the ropes of NASCAR. Despite his limited stock car knowledge, Papis has scored a top-10 in each of NASCAR’s top three divisions, something he credits partly to the help and advice he has received from those in the garage.
“When I grew up they told you if you want to beat your opposition, you have to hate your opposition,” Papis explained before Friday’s Camping World Truck Series practice. “I walk the garage a lot and I’ve felt I’ve built other friendships and there are more people that want to see me successful than people that don’t want to see me successful. This is what I need for me, to lean on people like Jimmie Johnson, that is a friend of mine for over ten years, but it’s great to know you have his full support.”
“I think a lot of the other forms of racing out there you didn’t see that a lot,” Stewart went on to say. “Here you see that more, I think it’s because the guys respect each other more here. At the same time if the guys you are racing with are out there making mistakes they put you at just as much risk, especially in a 500-lap race, at some point you’re going to be around them and if they’re doing things wrong that puts you in a bad spot.
“The thing is it’s kind of a cycle,” Stewart added. “There was somebody that helped us all when we first came in and as our careers progress and mature, we all do the same thing for the new guys coming in as it is their turn.”
There is a long checklist of things to adjust to when moving from to NASCAR after racing for years in another series, in another atmosphere. Yet, perhaps the most important is the relationship drivers have with one another. Until you are confident enough to ask for help and willing enough to listen, you’re not going to have the success you hoped to have.