MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Can you imagine Tom Brady and Peyton Manning exchanging tips on throwing the football right before a big game? Or Derek Jeter sharing batting tips with an opposing player on the eve of the World Series?
Sounds pretty crazy, huh?
Well, it did to Juan Montoya, too, when he first started driving in the Cup Series three years ago. Montoya was used to the cut-throat spirit of Formula One racing when he went to his first NASCAR test, where he was stunned by what he experienced.
“Yeah, I was surprised,” Montoya said. “The first person who did it was Kevin Harvick. We were testing in Miami for that first Cup race [at the end of the 2006 season] 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 [into the corner] 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. I’m serious. You would get a kick out of it. So it’s great to see that people are that open about it. When you’re on the race track, it’s time for business and you’re all on your own. But that [openness] is cool to see.”
One of Montoya’s favorite brains to pick is that of Mark Martin, who always seems agreeable to the skull sessions – even now, as the two battle each other in the Chase. Heading into Sunday’s Tums Fast Relief 500, Martin was second in the points standings and Montoya sixth.
But Montoya made it clear that he won’t stop at Martin when it comes to asking questions that he figures might help him.
“I ask Mark Martin a lot of questions and he helps me out a lot – whatever I need and it’s very helpful,” Montoya said. “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.
“For example, Robby Gordon is one of the best cars to run against the wall. He runs high. He really understands it and you can always learn from him. If you want to run against the fence you better look at that guy. It doesn’t mean the guy has to be really fast to learn something. You’ve just got to pay attention to what they’re doing and how they are doing it.”
Martin said he has no problems helping out other drivers. In fact, he said he gains great satisfaction from it.
“First of all, one of the biggest forms of flattery is to have someone come and want to talk to me and want my opinion or advice; it’s very flattering,” Martin said. “It’s something I’ve done ever since I really got hooked up with Ray Dillon in 1979 [when Martin worked at Dillon’s Late Model chassis shop]. I have done an enormous amount of it.
“In 1980 and ’81 we built race cars and our customers came and I did the set-up on their car to set their car up just exactly like mine and they paid me $100 cash and I was loving it! And then they would come to me at the race track, because we were always the fastest, and I always figured back then I could beat them anyway, you know?”
So he told them and showed them everything he knew. And apparently old habits are hard to break. But then, he pointed out that he learned to share information from others before him.
“[Dick] Trickle and some of those guys had always been that way with me as well. And it was fairly open,” Martin said. “I was open with Rusty Wallace. I raced with him before we got to NASCAR. He told me everything that he had – loud, too – in the middle of the pits. You know how Rusty was. Anytime Rusty needed or wanted to know what I was doing on set-ups – and these were set-ups – this wasn’t driving [tips] back then, this was even set-ups which are more critical. That’s not traded today in the NASCAR garage like that.”
So the helpfulness does have its limits.
There also are other, more selfish reasons for veteran drivers sharing information with newcomers to the sport, according to Tony Stewart.
“You see it more here [in NASCAR] than in a lot of other forms of racing that I’ve been involved in,” Stewart said. “I think it’s because guys respect each other more over here, but at the same time it’s more than that. If the guys you are racing out there against are making mistakes, it puts you at that much more risk – especially when you’re out there running 500 laps. You’re going to be around them, and if they’re doing things wrong, that’s going to put you in a bad spot.
“So you help them out and the thing is, it’s kind of a cycle. There always was somebody who helped you when you came in, helped you progress and mature in your career. As you get along in your own career, you want to do the same to help somebody else out. So when the new guys come in, there are always veterans there to help them out.”
Stewart added that he knows just where to draw the line when it comes to helping others, though.
“When they’re beating you, you stop. That’s a pretty easy line to draw,” said Stewart, who added that Martin, Bobby Labonte and Jeff Burton were three veterans who helped him the most when he was starting out in NASCAR. “When they’re outrunning you, that’s when you go back to them and ask, ‘Hey, what do I need to do now?
“You don’t tell ’em everything. But you explain the etiquette, you explain to them the little things that will help them as the day goes along. It’s not always necessarily things that will help them beat you. It’s going to help them have a more enjoyable day and stay out of trouble on the race track.”
The communication between Montoya and Martin did not compute on a restart during last weekend’s race at Charlotte, when both drivers checked up and Martin ended up running into Montoya’s No. 42 Chevrolet from behind. The damage to both of their cars relegated them each to poor finishes by their standards, although neither blamed the other.
In fact, Montoya said he would not hesitate to go to Martin again for advice.
“Yeah, it makes no sense,” Montoya said. “It’s crazy, but he does [answer questions] and he helps. 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.”
What might not be so great to see from Martin’s perspective is that if the student were to take what he learned from the teacher and beat him.
“Do I think Montoya could beat me? Sometimes,” Martin said. “But he’s probably going to beat me whether I answer his question honestly or not. And I’d much rather be honest than dishonest.”