When the door was left slightly ajar for teams from CART to race at the Indianapolis 500, the exclusive preserve of the Indy Racing League since 1996, Chip Ganassi Racing and its drivers Jimmy Vasser and Brickyard rookie Juan Pablo Montoya took on the challenge.
After two hours and 59 minutes of racing, Montoya had joined the Indy 500 legends. The Colombian was the first rookie winner since Graham Hill in 1966 and the most dominant rookie winner since Frank Lockhart in 1926. But it wasn't a victory based on good fortune or attrition: Montoya led at the 100, 200, 250, 300 and 400-mile marks, as well as the all-important 200th and final lap and pushed IRL aces Buddy Lazier, Eliseo Salazar, Jeff Ward and Eddie Cheever into the minor placings.
Rain delayed the start by three hours, but that probably played into Montoya's hands: the day before, he'd finished fourth in CART's outing at the Nazareth bullring, so any extra recovery time was much appreciated.
Montoya had been pipped to the pole by Greg Ray and had to fight hard with the Team Menard driver in the early laps, but when Ray hit the wall on lap 67, the rookie was unstoppable.
Ray took the lead at the start, ahead of Montoya, NASCAR Winston Cup driver Robby Gordon and Salazar. Ray and Montoya had the 400,000 crowd on the edge of their seats as they swapped the lead three times in the space of two tours of the venerable speedway starting on lap 26, but after that it was plain sailing for the man who had already set the Champ Car scene alight with a CART title at his first attempt just one season earlier.
Two other drivers making history were 53-year-old Lyn St James and 19-year-old rookie Sarah Fisher. In 84 runnings of the Indy 500, it was the first time that two women had competed in the race. Ironically, they made a little more history when they contrived to collide with each other on lap 69 - albeit with another rookie, Jaques Lazier, as the catalyst.
Montoya had adopted a nonchalant attitude to the Indy 500 - not from any arrogance, but from his trademark laid-back approach to racing - but when he finally took the chequered flag, the Formula 1-bound phenomenom was suitably jubilant. As well as getting his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy, Montoya took home a cheque for US$1,235,690, but declined to brag on behalf of CART - this was a victory for Montoya's speed and adaptability and for Chip Ganassi Racing's attention to detail and slick pitwork.
For 2001, Penske will be CART's highest-profile raider, but it seems difficult to believe that whatever happens, it will have the same impact of the little Colombian's first race on the most famous 2.5-miles of tarmac in the world.
WHAT THEY SAID...
Juan Pablo Montoya: "We are here like any other IRL team. We aren't here competing with a CART banner. Chip Ganassi brought a team here. I look at myself like any other driver. It was great to win the CART championship last year and great to win this. These are the two biggest things that ever happened to me."
Al Unser Jr: (Before the race) "Juan is very, very aggressive. They carry people out of here on stretchers. If you don't respect it, it will bite you."
Chip Ganassi: "This kid [Montoya] just may be the best driver in the world right now. He's incredible, isn't he? This is still the biggest race in the world and this is the biggest win in the world."
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