THE BIG SWAPOLA
There was Jeff Gordon, the four-time Winston Cup champ, three-time Brickyard 400 winner and former open wheel standout. He brought his #24 Hendricks Motorsports Dupont Chevrolet Monte Carlo Winston Cup car to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to do The Big Swapola.
And there was Juan Pablo Montoya, fresh from victory in the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix who, along with his BMW Williams F1 team had dragged last year's FW24 Formula One racer out of mothballs just so Gordon could check it out. This was the same car Montoya drove in the 2002 USGP, leading until mechanical problems sidelined him.
They'd been meaning to do this for over a year but the schedules just didn't jibe until June 11th. Montoya was headed to Montreal for the Air Canada Canadian Grand Prix; Gordon just up the road to Michigan International Speedway for the Sirius Satellite Radio Winston Cup race. It was now or never.
For a while it looked like the weather wouldn't cooperate at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but expected rain held off until well after the duo had performed the BMW-promoted publicity stunt known as "Tradin' Paint".
There have always been some questions about Jeff Gordon's choice of jobs. Did he miss his calling by driving Winston Cup taxicabs? This was the opportunity for Gordon to find out if he had it. For Montoya, it was a chance to see what a front-line Winston Cup car is all about.
They were using the 2.606-mile Grand Prix circuit inside the famed Brickyard oval for this display of speed. The two teams ensconced in a brace of garages at what would normally be Pit In for the Formula One set the night before this trade-off and prepped the cars for the battle the following day. The two drivers showed up, as drivers do, the morning of competition.
Think it was just a publicity stunt? Well, think again. Even with a monstrous number of media on hand to record the goings-on for their outlets and Speed TV producing live coverage, this event had the feel of a holiday. For Juan Pablo. For Jeff. It was simply chance to have fun without pressure. And that's exactly what they did.
"I got the better end of the bargain," Gordon crowed after his first three laps in the BMW Williams F1 bullet. For a guy who has barely sat in a single seater since he began driving Winston Cup, Gordon looked at home.
He was a bit tenuous out of the garage and onto the oval heading for F1's Turn 1, as Gordon spent some righteous time just idling down the straight, learning the lights and buttons before he got comfortable enough to nail the throttle. And nail it he did.
Yes, Jeffy went off-course at the end of the Hulman Blvd short chute after miscalculating braking necessary to make the turn-in. Once he understood how the traction control operated, though, he sure got with the program. On his second stint, Gordon even successfully tried out launch control. Without wheelspin.
Gordon's lap the times came down and the smiles increased; every tour sounded more on that necessary edge. When he came into the garage area the four-time Winston Cup champ pumped his arms and clapped his hands. His joy was palpable.
"It's amazing. It's just like point and shoot. You just drive in there, stop, turn and just go to the throttle as hard as you can. He told me that, but I didn't believe him," Gordon gushed. He really meant it, too. "This fulfills really every desire and dream that I had. I can now say I've driven a Formula One car."
Gordon got seven laps in the Williams FW24 projectile that legally weighs 1322.76 pounds (with driver) and makes 900 horsepower at BMW's stunning 19,000rpm.
Now he knows. He can do this. "Man, my neck is gonna be sore," Gordon moaned happily.
And Juan Pablo Montoya knows what it's like to muscle a 3400-pound dinosaur with a carburetor and 750 horsies at 8000rpm.
"The rear moves a lot. It feels really light. It has so much more power than I expected." Montoya's comments about the lack of braking ability on the big Monte Carlo were succinct. "You know, if you put better brakes into it, it would go a lot quicker." "I tell them that every weekend," Gordon guffawed.
Montoya was making this point after over-shooting the entry to Turn 1 in the Cup car and waggling the rear coming onto the oval's banks after the final turn. He admitted all of this with a huge grin on his face. The 2000 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race victor looked genuinely happy to be doing this demonstration. There was a certain light in his eyes.
Montoya hasn't driven anything with a roof on it since 1994 but had no problems settling in. Everything was a simple for Juan Pablo, even stirring the four-speed transmission. Between first and second stints of his six total laps, the Hendrick team led by Robbie Loomis made some adjustments and "the car was very reactive to the changes."
Accustomed to Michelin grooved rubber that changes throughout each F1 race stint, Montoya was amazed that the Goodyear slicks lost grip after only a lap. Just something else to get accustomed to on the Chevrolet Monte Carlo. "It's pretty hard to keep it under you."
With the Cup car, "what you've got is what you've got," Montoya shrugged with a naughty smile. "On the oval the Cup car felt so light. The engine really surprised me" with its grunt, and the Colombian had to slow his reactions and say "okay, okay" and not rush into each corner. As in Formula One, "the last second is really hard to get. It's difficult to make the car comfortable enough to get that last little bit," he admitted.
While it was evident Gordon needed to try this to see if he had the feel for the F1 car, what was in it for Montoya? "I came and didn't know what to expect from the car. Its engine power really surprised me. Today was go out, push a car you've never driven in your life. It was a lot of fun to drive and you're not going to waste the opportunity, you know? You got to go for it!"
It was back to business over the weekend for Juan Pablo Montoya and Jeff Gordon. Montoya finished third in the Air Canada Grand Prix at the Gilles Villeneuve Circuit in Montreal, Canada. Jeff Gordon, too, finished third in the Sirius Satellite Radio Winston Cup race at Michigan International Speedway in the Irish Hills southwest of Detroit.
"I think this should be the first annual "Tradin' Paint" and we should do it every year," Gordon suggested.