Juan Pablo Montoya believes a lack of dirt racing backgrounds among foreign drivers is one of the key reasons why more are not competing in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Montoya moved into NASCAR full-time in 2007 following the end of his Formula 1 career at McLaren, and took two wins in 255 starts, mostly with Chip Ganassi Racing.
In an extended interview with Motorsport Report’s Julia Piquet, Montoya said he believes the fact that most countries encourage karting on asphalt means drivers from outside the US are at a disadvantage compared to those rising through the ranks in North America.
Mexican Daniel Suarez is currently the only foreign-born driver competing in the top-tier of NASCAR competition with Stewart-Haas Racing.
“The culture when you grow up racing in Latin America or Europe, you grow up racing karts on asphalt and circuits, you don’t grow up doing ovals or dirt,” said Montoya.
“Dirt is a big part of what you need to do to be good in NASCAR. That was one of my biggest struggles at the beginning.
“When you get out of shape in an open-wheel car and you think you’re going to wreck, like you’re crashing, that’s when the NASCAR starts working like, ‘OK, this is where I need to be’.
“That feeling when you think you’re going to crash, it’s tough because at that point you are only about right.
“So, mentally to understand, ‘Hey, you’re OK [the car is just loose], it’s tough.”
The 2009 season was Montoya’s best in NASCAR, when he finished eight overall with the Ganassi team he had dominated Champ Car with in 1999.
He became the first foreign-born driver to qualify the final 10 shootout known as ‘The Chase’ that year.
“We had a shot at the championship until I think Texas, when [Carl] Edwards wrecked us,” added Montoya, who is competing in the IMSA Sportscar Championship with Penske this year and in the Le Mans 24 Hours with LMP2 squad United Autosports.
“Until that point we were in a really good position. We had a strong car.
“One of the tough things is, Ganassi has never been a top team in NASCAR.
“They do a really good job, and when I went there I knew from day one, he [Chip Ganassi] told me, ‘We aren’t a top team but we want to take it there’.
“For me it was a good opportunity because I could grow with the team and make it better and we did.
“We won races and made it to the Chase and we were in a really good position.
“Then a lot of changes were made in the team and all the key people that made the cars go fast went. A lot of politicking went in and I think the wrong people got fired.”