Munoz hopes to follow Montoya to Victory Lane
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Carlos Munoz remembers spilling into the streets of his native Bogota the minute that Juan Pablo Montoya crossed the finish line to win the Indianapolis 500.
He was just a boy back in 2000, but Munoz looked around at everyone celebrating the triumph and understood what it meant: That someone from Colombia could break through on one of motor racing’s grandest stages, swill some celebratory milk and kiss the famed yard of bricks.
“He’s my idol,” Munoz said, “and you have to admire someone like that, the first Colombian to win an F-1 race, and the first to win here. You have to admire that. He’s an example.”
He’s an example Munoz hopes to follow.
The 21-year-old sensation will start in the middle of the front row on Sunday, just as Montoya did as a rookie more than a decade ago. He hopes to go straight to the front, too, just like his hero, and dominate the race in the same fashion that launched Montoya to stardom.
“One of the cool things about him, he is a really nice kid, really down to earth,” Montoya said from Charlotte, N.C., where he’s racing in Sunday night’s Sprint Cup race. “I think he has a good future, and it’s nice to see another Colombian racing in Indy and doing so well.”
Munoz said that he doesn’t know Montoya well — he’s actually better friends with Montoya’s brother, Federico. So he was surprised when Montoya reached out to him recently with a few pointers.
What exactly did Montoya say?
“It’s a secret,” Munoz said with a smile. “He said it’s going to be 500 miles and you have to keep your head. ... I have to go step by step and not make any mistakes.”
Therein lays the rub, the stark truth that has so much of the field on edge.
Montoya may have been an Indy rookie in 2000, but he was also the defending champion in CART, back when that series rivaled the Indy Racing League. So he had plenty of experience running against elite open-wheel competition, including on high-speed ovals such as Michigan.
Munoz, the Indy Lights point leader, will be in uncharted territory.
“He’s had a couple of wild moments out there,” said Pippa Mann, who helps call Indy Lights races for IMS Radio, and who will start near the back of the pack on Sunday.
“So the analyst in me is going to say, ‘I’d love to see him settle down a little bit,’” Mann said, “and the driver who’s going to be on the track him would love to see him settle down a little bit, too. He’s super-fast. He’s just young and inexperienced.”
In the case of Munoz, though, inexperience may play to his advantage.
He knows no better than to run wide open.
“He’s getting away with a lot of stuff I’ve never seen people get away with,” Graham Rahal said. “On one day last week, he literally put two wheels in the grass on the inside of one and didn’t have a single snap. That’s ridiculous. I’ve never seen a car have that much grip here.”
Former Indy 500 winner Eddie Cheever has seen Munoz make a couple of those moves.
“He’s incredibly brave,” said Cheever, who will help call the race for ABC. “He’ll put the nose of his car anywhere and still get out of trouble. If I’m sitting in the manager’s chair, I’m thinking, ‘How am I going to manage so much talent and so much speed for a 500-mile race?’”
One thing Munoz has going for him is his equipment.
He’s in the fifth car fielded by Andretti Autosport, the program that has dominated the month of May. And while he’s often overshadowed by defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, popular teammate Marco Andretti, and even E.J. Viso and James Hinchcliffe, Munoz proved with his four-lap average of 228.342 mph during qualifying last weekend that he has one of the cars to beat.
“If he finishes, he’s going to be in the top five,” Andretti said. “But he’s got to finish. It’s a long race, and the biggest thing for any rookie is you’ve got to not force the issue, let the race come to you, take the necessary chances but not the unnecessary chances.”
Yes, even Munoz’s own teammates are wary of his go-for-broke attitude.
They’re also curious to see how he reacts to the pressure and pageantry of Indianapolis.
“The biggest thing is you drive around all month long with these gray grandstands,” Hinchcliffe said, “and they all of a sudden are not these gray metal structures anymore. They become living, breathing things, and there’s this sea of color and movement and it looks completely different.
“It’s almost a completely different race track,” he added, “and the first time you see it is at the speed of the race, hurtling into Turn 1 there. It’s something you have to be ready for.”
Pole sitter Ed Carpenter, who will start next to Munoz on the grid, said there’s no way to truly prepare for taking the green flag for the first time. That’s what makes him tense.
“You’re always more comfortable racing with guys you know,” Carpenter said. “But it’s not the fact that he’s a rookie that makes me nervous, or anything that he’s done this month. I just don’t know him. I don’t know what to expect. And he’ll be nervous, no doubt about that.”
At least, until he makes the walk from Gasoline Alley to the track.
Then, Munoz said, he’ll begin to block everything out.
“When you’re inside the car,” he said, “you’re not nervous. I’ll be nervous before going in the car, but once you’re in the seat, the helmet and everything, it will all be OK.”
AP Auto Racing Writer Jenna Fryer contributed to this report.