HOUSTON — Moments after Colombia wrapped up its victory over Uruguay in the World Cup, a trio of Colombian drivers headed to the rain-soaked podium at the Grand Prix of Houston.
One by one, Carlos Huertas, Juan Pablo Montoya and Carlos Munoz unfurled their yellow, blue and red flags in a celebratory Saturday for their country. It was the first all-Colombian podium in IndyCar history.
Huertas, a 23-year-old rookie, used strategy to grab his first career victory. He was followed by Montoya, in his highest finish in this year’s return to IndyCar, and then Munoz, who was moved to third-place when Graham Rahal wrecked Tony Kanaan on an aborted final restart.
It put Montoya, a former champion who also raced in Formula One and NASCAR, on the far right of the podium next to a pair of young drivers who grew up idolizing him.
“Look, it’s just like beating any other driver,” Huertas said. “You guys, the fans, they know what he has done. They keep reminding us. It just shows the level of the series, if I do a good job, I can beat guys like that. My objective is to beat all the drivers and I treat them all the same.”
Stoic and unemotional, Huertas insisted he was thrilled with the victory and the footnote he and his countrymen had on the big day for Colombia.
But Montoya and Munoz were adamant the day was historic.
“I think today is the first day in motor racing in the world that three Colombians are on the podium, it’s unbelievable and it’s exciting and, in my opinion, they’ve got a good shot in World Cup as well,” Montoya said.
Munoz preferred to be sticking in Houston for Sunday’s second race of the doubleheader weekend.
“We are really lucky to be here in America and not in Colombia, because right now Colombia should be really crazy to go out in the streets,” Munoz said. “Everybody celebrating. This is a big deal. This is terrific for Colombia, first time 1-2-3 on a podium in a motorsports race, and first time we go to quarterfinals. We showed what Colombians are made of, and showed the bad image people have of Colombia, it’s not about one thing.”
It was an unpredictable and wet race through the temporary street course at Reliant Park. Originally scheduled for 90 laps, IndyCar decided right before the start to go to a timed race at 1 hour, 50 minutes because the conditions would take too long to go the scheduled distance.
Dale Coyne Racing used strategy to get Justin Wilson and Huertas to the front, but Wilson eventually had to pit for fuel, and Huertas assumed the lead with just over seven minutes to go. Then Ryan Briscoe turned Sebastian Saavedra, the fourth Colombian in the field, to bring out a caution with five minutes to go.
IndyCar believed it had enough time after the cleanup to run one final lap and Huertas lined up with Montoya, Tony Kanaan, Graham Rahal and Munoz behind him,
But as they inched toward the green flag, Rahal anxiously turned Kanaan and the start was waved off. Rahal was assessed a 30-second penalty for the contact with Kanaan, and it gave Munoz the final spot on the podium.
Montoya, an idol to all young Colombian drivers, went to victory circle to congratulate Huertas.
“He’s a good kid and he did a good job today,” said Montoya, who then scolded Huertas to zip up his firesuit. “I do tease him a lot. He had the suit all open and I told him, ‘You’ve got to look good.’ “
Kanaan was livid after the accident and wouldn’t even look at Rahal when Rahal came to apologize after the race.
“I can’t do what I really want to do,” Kanaan said. “What a shame. To be taken out, I think it’s stupid. He was having a good day, too, and it ruined his day, too. I wanted to believe he didn’t do it on person, and of course he came to apologize.”
Rahal took full blame.
“With the stack-up on the restart, I was trying to keep the tires as dry as I could, and I was to the left and when I stacked up, I just didn’t see him at all,” Rahal said. “I just got into the back of him.”
It ended a strong run for Rahal, who stalled on the standing start but had rallied through the field and used a strong late drive to move into fourth before the last caution. Had the race gone green one last time, Rahal thought he had the winning car.