Indianapolis 500 rookie Carlos Munoz will start on the front row in today’s 97th running of the greatest spectacle in racing. He will be the first rookie to start second since fellow Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya did so in 2000.
The full-time Firestone Indy Lights driver was given an IZOD Indy Car Series ride solely for the 500. After finishing fifth in Indy lights points’ last season, team owner Michael Andretti put Munoz in a car for the race as his fifth entry. While all Andretti cars have been strong, nobody could have anticipated the way Munoz would run on pole day.
“Our main goal was to be in the fast 9 … I knew I had great car and a great engine. We changed a few things for the fast 9 after everything. We didn’t expect to be second but it was a great feeling once the day ended.”
Munoz qualified with a four lap average of 228.342 just barely missing the pole position. To be the first rookie to start second since his native hero Montoya, Munoz reflected on how it felt watching his idol win Indy and what it was like taking laps at the same track, hopefully with the same results.
“The feeling I had going down the back stretch was great … I can remember when I was a little kid watching Montoya win this race and now being where he was is an awesome feeling. He won as a rookie after he qualified second and it feels good when people tell me I’m the new Montoya but I don’t want pressure because he won his first year. I know the expectations.”
Munoz almost had a taste of victory at Indianapolis on Friday during the Indy Lights Freedom 100 race leading the field to the white flag. However, a wild last lap resulted in a photo-finish as he and three other up-and-coming drivers battled it out down the front stretch four-wide. Munoz would finish fourth, just .0443 of a second back while the winning margin from first to second was just .0026 of a second.
It is hard to prepare for a race when there are so many unknown variables, and Friday’s race was proof. It was good experience, though, as Munoz learned a few lessons through the loss. If the situation presents itself today, he will have rare experience for being a rookie.
“I saw the video yesterday and I couldn’t do anything, I chose a good lane and chose to protect the inside … It was difficult because I didn’t have a lot of room to move. If I was a little bit more quick I could have won but I couldn’t do anything more to change it and I don’t think an Indy the car would be any different.”
Starting second in a fast Andretti Autosport machine will likely keep Munoz up front early. But the 21-year old is in no hurry. Munoz understands it’s a marathon and not a sprint.
“It’s a long race and the last lap pays more than the first one. If I lose position on the first lap I will just stay calm. A lot can happen so I’ll just do my best and do a great job with pit stops so all the good work we’ve put in pays off.”
If it does pay off, it will be a moment that Munoz can’t even fathom. Of course, very few people know what that moment is like, and that’s why so many have attempted to take home the hardware.
“I don’t like to anticipate things; I’ll just see what happens … If all the drivers in the world won the 500 the race wouldn’t mean as much. That’s why it’s so special; I can’t describe what that moment would be like. But my main goal is to finish the race and gain experience.”