HOUSTON – It may go down as one of the greatest days in Colombian sports history.
First, the Colombian National Team won its match in soccer’s World Cup as its “futbol” team defeated Uruguay 2-0. Then, three of its drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series swept the podium in Saturday’s Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston Presented by the Greater Houston Honda Dealers at NRG Park.
Carlos Huertas, a 23-year-old rookie, won a bizarre race that was contested on a wet race track after a heavy rain before the start of the race. That changed the dynamic of the event that equalized the field and helped some teams make some bold strategic moves.
“It was always possible to win, the team did a great job and you always have a chance to win if you do the right things at the right time,” Huertas said. “I stayed calm and did what I had to do and the team called it perfectly with the fuel. At the end of the day it’s a victory for the team and myself – it’s great.”
Huertas defeated his Colombian racing hero Juan Pablo Montoya and another rookie driver from Colombia, Carlos Munoz in a race that ended under caution after another Colombian Sebastian Saavedra stuffed in the turn five tire barrier in the closing minutes of the race. The crash came on lap 77 and IndyCar officials quickly cleared the track to attempt a restart.
The race was set to go green for a one-lap dash to the checkered flag but fourth-place driver Graham Rahal ran into the back of the third-place car driven by Tony Kanaan to end the race under caution.
Rahal was given a 30-second penalty by IndyCar officials for avoidable contact in a confusing ending to a very sloppy race. He finished 11th instead of third and Kanaan finished 13th.
“I have to be professional with a team to defend and a lot of good sponsors so I can’t do what I really want to do,” Kanaan said. “To be taken out like that is stupid. He was having a good day too so it took him out, too. He has to accept the blame for that. It’s just a shame. Am I mad at him? Yes. Can I turn back time? No. So we have to turn the page to tomorrow.”
Rahal went from last at the start of the race to a chance to finish on the podium before the crash with Kanaan.
“I said I was sorry and with the stack up on the restart I was trying to keep the tires as dry as I could, it stacked up and I got into the back of him,” Rahal explained. “I think if it ended under green we would have won this race for sure. I made a mistake and that is the way it goes.”
Up front, it was Huertas who gave Dale Coyne Racing another IndyCar win when he finished ahead of 1999 CART champion and 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner Montoya.
“I think it shows the depth of what we’ve put together,” Coyne said. “A lot of things changed this year from last year, but we were still able to put together a great group of guys. I think we had a very, very good strategy today. That strategy comes from years of being here, so in the interview I said people forget how to run a timed race. I was all excited when they said it was a timed race, open the pits on yellow we’ll really show you how to do this thing, but those strategies have been around for years, so I think all that helped. Obviously both guys could run strong, and again, Carlos, he runs so clean, and able to run strong when we put him out in the front.
“Sometimes it takes strategy to do that. We’ve done that a couple times this year, and it’s worked out well. So we’re very, very pleased and we’ve been close to getting a race win earlier this year or two, so maybe we can do more than one this year.”
Huertas became the seventh different winner in the nine races so far this season. He went the final 39 laps without pitting for fuel or fresh tires. And then he had to hold off his racing hero, Montoya.
“I was warming the tires really well and the brakes, and then I saw him in my mirrors,” Huertas said. “He got really close, and then I just second gear, full throttle, I had a good gap, and as soon as I came out of the corner, he did the overtake, and I knew he didn’t have anything left. There was a big gap, and then they said yellow came out, and I was like, I have to do this again.
“It would have been nicer to win the race full speed, but anyways, it’s a victory, and I’m happy.
“I have huge respect for Juan, and to beat him shows that I’ve done a good job. But my objective is to beat all the drivers, and I treat them all the same, otherwise it wouldn’t be the same feeling.
“Juan – he’s the best Colombian driver. He’s been one of the very best in the world, past world championship races, everywhere he’s been, and nearly won the F-1 championship, as well, has won in NASCAR, and then he comes back here and he’s competitive straight away.
“It shows that I did a good job today. The field is very, very strong. He said before, if you have a mediocre day you can easily be lost, which is a second off, which is not bad, but you’re last. It says a lot about the series, how competitive it is, and also the circuit, being the lap time is so short, makes it even tighter. You have to be on top of your game every session, every qualifying and every race.”