0

Franchitti, Montoya working together to find success

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - They first met in England in late 1994. One was a proper Englishman well on his way to a racing career, the other a raw Colombian looking for a big break.

Dario Franchitti gave up his seat that day at Silverstone, and Juan Pablo Montoya promptly crashed his car. Everyone agrees the brake pedal broke, causing Montoya's hard wreck.

'He said to me 'You went in (to the corner) too late,' Montoya remembered. 'And I said 'Too Late? I had no ... brakes!' And I didn't speak much English then, so it was funny.'

'I didn't say that,' Franchitti disputed 'If you didn't speak much English, how do you know what I said?'

'You said it,' Montoya insisted. 'I know what you said.'

The incident was almost 14 years ago, but it sparked a friendship that has steadily grown through the years and could ultimately be the key to Franchitti's success in NASCAR.

As the reigning IndyCar Series champion and Indianapolis 500 winner makes the move into stock cars this season, he'll lean on Montoya, who made a similar switch last year.

Franchitti is now Montoya's teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing, and the two former open-wheelers are practically inseparable. They play online poker against each other, eat out often and talk about everything from Christmas shopping to custom-built cars to, of course, racing.

The two joined Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas last weekend to win the prestigious Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway, giving Ganassi a record three straight wins in the sports car event. The comfort level between the two was clear the entire weekend, as they popped in and out of each other's motorhomes and passed a good deal of the time together.

With about two hours to go in the Rolex, a stressed out Ganassi left his pit box in search of some relaxation. He found it back in the motorhome lot, where Franchitti and Montoya were grilling steaks.

'Here it is, 11 or so in the morning, and these two guys are just hanging out having a cookout,' Ganassi said Monday. 'It totally took our mind off the race and was just a cool way to spend that time before the finish.'

The two are admittedly an odd mix with decidedly different tastes. Franchitti, who moves in a jet-setting crowd with actress wife Ashley Judd, wears cashmere and knows the finest places to frequent. Montoya prefers jeans and T-shirts, watching movies and playing computers games and loves fast food.

Montoya is a doting father to his two young children, while Franchitti pampers his dogs.

Still, the two have a comfort level that gives them the freedom to pick on each other: Montoya doesn't like Franchitti's 'girlie' sunglasses or the Porsche he wants to buy, while Franchitti mocks Montoya's dinning choices - 'He took me to Red Lobster the other night! He said the salad bar was the best around.'

It's that candor that will help Franchitti adapt to what could be a bumpy first season in NASCAR.

Montoya made the leap from Formula One last year, and has repeatedly said it was the hardest transition he's made in any racing series. But with moderate success - he won a Cup race, a Nationwide Series race and rookie of the year - the Colombian often made it look easy to open-wheelers taking note of his progress.

Now Franchitti is one of four new open-wheelers making the change, and many expect this new batch of drivers to struggle more than Montoya did.

But in having Montoya on his team, Franchitti has a built-in tutor. It was evident during Franchitti's Nationwide starts last season, when Montoya watched from the pits and occasionally got on the radio to offer advice.

'He's going to be very important to me because coming from the same place, we talk the same language in technical terms,' Franchitti said. 'And he's made the transition right before me, so there's no one better to help me.'

Few would have believed Montoya had this kind of mentoring in him. For much of his career he's been viewed as temperamental and selfish, someone not able to get along with his teammates.

But it was more a reflection on the mentality of European - and F1 - racing than it was on Montoya.

'It's just different in America,' Montoya said. 'We raced each other for the CART championship and got along just fine. That's just the way it is in America - you race hard with each other on the track, but then you get on well off of it.'

Montoya was reminded of that last season when he quickly bonded with former Ganassi driver David Stremme, but Franchitti knew Montoya had it in him. He'd seen Montoya interact with Jimmy Vasser back in CART, and had an idea of how helpful Montoya would be once they joined the same team.

'I could see the way Jimmy and Juan got on, and I knew it would be fine,' Franchitti said. 'And we really have a lot in common - we both have a remarkable talent of making expensive clothes look cheap. So wherever we go, we look underdressed.'

This friendship could also have a downfall, Franchitti noted. Because everyone knows Montoya will be helping Franchitti adapt to NASCAR, the results will be credited to someone.

'If it goes badly, it will be his fault,' Franchitti said. 'If it goes well, it will be me.'