Making a Difference
NASCAR driver Juan Montoya and his wife, Connie, became parents for the third time last year, and they're enjoying the experience tremendously.
But sometimes, thanks to the activity of him and Connie's Formula Smiles Foundation, you would think the Montoyas actually have thousands of kids, based off the numbers of youngsters they help.
But intriguing as it sounds, Montoya quickly shot that thought down during a conversation at Daytona International Speedway earlier this month -- though his actions paint a different picture.
As with anything else, Montoya said two of the most critical elements in his -- or any profession -- time and money, have the biggest impact on what his foundation's able to achieve.
The 10 days before Christmas and the two weeks after the holiday epitomized that for Montoya, even though he did get to participate in a couple events that were high-profile to him, Connie and Formula Smiles.
Montoya discussed it at a break in a Grand-Am Rolex Series test session at Daytona International Speedway. It was the first of two trips here in less than two weeks for Montoya, preparing for a slew of racing during Speedweeks 2011.
"It's short," Montoya said of his alleged offseason. "But it's good. We were here testing on Dec. , and it's the eighth of January and we're here again -- so it's not big enough."
But right before the Goodyear tire test in mid-December, Montoya paid a surprise visit to the Early Beginnings Academy Northshore, near Miami Shores, Fla., and near the Montoyas' own Miami-area home, after which he and his family went to Colombia for two weeks.
The Academy is a charter school for children with special needs, that's part of the non-profit organization United Cerebral Palsy of South Florida. The school serves approximately 80 children, ranging from newborns to age six.
It was right in his foundation's proverbial wheelhouse, and it gave Montoya pause to talk about Formula Smiles, which he and Connie, the foundation's president and driving force, launched in 2003. Formula Smiles came about shortly after the turn of the 21st century, but it was something the Montoyas had thought about much longer, through the open-wheel phases of his career, in the Formula One World Championship and IndyCar Series.
"It was between my wife and myself," Montoya said. "I've been very fortunate with everything that I have, and what I do -- so we just wanted to give something back to the people that believed in me, and don't have anything."
Much more than that, the Montoyas wanted to help children, and they started a little before their first child, Sebastian, was born.
"There's a lot of foundations that look after [adults] -- where they're gonna eat [and] where they're gonna sleep," Montoya said. "But nobody really cares about what the kids do, and we're trying to provide education through sports -- how to be a team player, to share and to respect -- to get them off drugs and bad habits.
"And it seems to work. We've got about 4,000 children, already, and it's a really good deal."
Montoya smiled and shook his head, sadly, it seemed, in the negative when asked if the feeling was akin to having thousands of kids of his own.
"It's really hard, because you don't get enough time to go and see these people," Montoya said. "A lot of times we'll go when we open a new place, but I'm here -- I live in the [United] States and I go twice [a year] to Colombia. So it's a really hard balance, getting everything together."
Montoya has lived in South Florida since his days racing American open-wheel series, and some of his foundation's work is centered there.
"It's an American foundation but it benefits Colombia [primarily]," Montoya said. "K'nex, which makes connectible toys, gave us, like, 1,000 toys for Christmas [last year] and we actually went to a couple schools here in the U.S. with some special kids and stuff, and it was an amazing experience -- letting them take the toy they wanted, whatever they wanted to build or to do. It was pretty interesting."
And for Montoya, who's used to interacting as a professional athlete with the media, his fellow competitors and fans on their respective appropriate levels, his foundation's work offers something very different.
"A lot of the kids -- some know who you are and some don't -- I mean, some don't even know what NASCAR is," Montoya said, with a grin. "But at that point, it's not about me, it's about them -- and having the opportunity to help them.
"They're just happy to have a toy, to have someone pay attention to them. There are a lot of different situations, in different places."
Montoya told a story of one of his recreational facilities in Colombia "that had a lot of balls, because each year we give them a lot of balls [for their playground]. Well, somebody stole all their balls, so they called and said 'we need new balls.'
"So I said, 'Hold on. We give you new balls every six months and it's been three months. So you're gonna have to wait three months.' The point was, if they wanted their balls, they were going to have to find out who stole them, and get them back. And they did -- they actually did.
"The mom from the kid that stole everything called and said, 'All your balls are here, come and pick them up.' That's frikkin amazing, in a poor community, to do that. It's really incredible."
But those are the kinds of impacts Montoya and his foundation thrive on.
Montoya told of "another issue with another community, and the kids were not going [to the foundation's recreational facility]. So we were going to close it, because if the communities don't embrace what we're trying to do, they're spoiling it. So they heard we were going to close it, and now all the kids go."
Montoya said the toughest road his foundation has to hoe is that it's unilateral -- it's there to help, and it asks nothing in return, except, of course, that its facilities are used.
"It's really hard to get across to people," Montoya said, struggling a little to explain such a simple concept. "People always think, 'If you give me something ...' that we're going to ask something in return. And we're not. We're not really asking anything in return -- we just want to help. And people are not used to that."
But while trying to build the latest chapter in his diverse racing career, Montoya is seeing the payback.
"Just helping the different communities is the most gratifying thing," Montoya said. "I let my wife run the foundation -- she's the president and really runs it, day to day. I would love to do it, but I don't have the time, or anything."
Montoya said, because of his racing schedule, he tries to be as efficient as he can be with events and fundraisers the foundation attempts to effect.
"What I do a lot here in the states is a lot of ticket promotions with different tracks, and we raise money through that," Montoya said. "We do a golf tournament in Colombia and we do a big gala event in Miami [in conjunction with the season-ending Ford Championship Weekend]. We've done that in California, as well. There are a few tracks that have helped us."
Montoya said he and his wife always look at new ways to reach out, but "there are so many foundations," he said, "and trying to raise money for Colombia is a bit of a barrier, because a lot of people would rather donate money to something that's going to benefit the U.S.
"Money is the limiting factor, always. Do you want to be in more places and look after more people? Of course you do. Chevron-Texaco has always been a big contributor and they've really helped the foundation, in Colombia, as well as Target, Chevy and a lot of the partners here in the U.S. Whenever we do events they're always there for us, and that's been really good how they support us, in whatever we do. That really means a lot."