Colombian rookie Carlos Munoz’s driving set to earn more headlines

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Carlos Munoz’s two 2013 starts for Andretti Autosport in an IndyCar produced audible gasps more often than not.

There was no way he was going to make some of the moves and entry lines he did work. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his line of arcing in so high and then diving so low below the white line in the turns should not have ended without him in the wall. But it did, in second place in his Indianapolis 500 debut.

Then at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana in October, Munoz was moving high or low with ease in an action-packed 100 laps. Then, just past the century-mark, it finally bit him.

The 22-year-old Colombian is a seriously impressive star in the making, and with a full offseason to prepare for his first full season in the championship, he’s the early favorite for rookie-of-the-year honors in the team’s No. 34 Cinsay Honda.

Don’t tell him that, though. Munoz is a quiet, introspective student appreciative of the teammates around him and his countryman, Juan Pablo Montoya, who he’ll have the chance to race this year.

“Yeah, I’m a really quiet guy. I’m really shy,” Munoz admitted during IndyCar media day in Orlando. “That doesn’t mean I’m – how you say – bad person. I’m quiet and shy compared to James (Hinchcliffe). He’s always talking, making jokes, completely different mind.

“But they treat me as one of them. They treat me really well. After Indy they treat me really well!  But it’s great to have this combination of drivers, no?”

Munoz didn’t need to produce a star turn in the ‘500 to earn his place on the grid, but it didn’t hurt. He showed enough aggression, poise and pace in his two full seasons in Indy Lights that he was projected to move up this year, despite not winning the championship a year ago.

“That race just gave me the opportunity to be here in a full season,” he said. “I have another chance to go get that race. I’m focused on this year. But now I have my chance and I have to think and work for it.”

At least initially, he may have a slight pace edge on his two countrymen, Montoya and Sebastian Saavedra. Montoya will need to shake the rust off after his extended open-wheel hiatus, while Saavedra acclimates to a new team at KV/AFS Racing.

Munoz said Montoya wasn’t so much his idol, as much as a symbol of what could be achieved when Munoz was growing up. But he plans to consider him just “one of the guys” once on track.

“I don’t like the word ‘idolized,’ but he was a symbol for me when I was a kid, an example for me and many Colombian drivers, to follow him,” Munoz said.

“We have a great relationship.  He called me last year. We have known him a lot, giving me some little tips about the race and everything.  I have some pictures of him when I was small.  He was at a go-kart race with his brother when I was small.  It’s a strange feeling when you’re small, you’re looking at him as a big driver.

“But once I’m here, you just put your helmet on, everyone is the same. You don’t think, ‘Who is this guy, or what he’s done.’”

In just two years, Munoz has already done enough to get the buzz going for his rookie season. He still will need a couple races on the road and street courses to get further acclimated, although his Toronto cameo for Panther Racing last year was an impressive performance.

Whether he, Montoya or Saavedra emerges as the year’s top Colombian remains to be seen.

Fernando Alonso likes NASCAR country, but he’s not leaving F1 any time soon

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Jimmie Johnson strolled into the Charlotte Convention Center and did a double-take when he saw Fernando Alonso hanging out in a hallway.

“What’s he doing here?” NASCAR’s seven-time champion wondered.

Alonso made the trip to North Carolina to make an appearance at NASCAR’s annual preseason media tour. No, a ride in NASCAR is not imminent, but the two-time Formula One champion is about to embark on his first major sports car race .

Alonso will race this weekend in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona for United Autosports, the sports car team owned by his McLaren F1 boss, Zak Brown. It was Brown who paved the way for Alonso to compete in last year’s Indianapolis 500, and he is helping the Spaniard knock prestigious races off his wish list.

Alonso spent about 10 minutes chatting with Johnson, and the duo was eventually joined by sports car aces Scott Pruett and Joey Hand, who were brought to the NASCAR event by IMSA to help promote the Rolex, and then Cup champion Kevin Harvick.

The meet-and-greet with Alonso was a thrill for Johnson. Alonso was equally impressed.

“The first time I heard his name it was probably 2003 on the NASCAR video game,” Alonso said Tuesday. “I used to choose him, not knowing him, just because of the car. I remember playing with another friend of mine, he likes a chocolate company I will not name now, and he was choosing that car and I was choosing Jimmie’s car.

“But that was the first time I heard of him, and obviously the success that he has in the years in motor racing, he became a legend of our sport, and massive respect.”

Johnson said he’s always been a fan of Alonso’s and spent some time telling Alonso how well he ran in the Indianapolis 500 last May. Alonso led 27 laps and seemed to be in contention for the win until his engine expired 21 laps from the finish.

“He handled himself so well, really did a great job, and I think brought a lot to the table,” Johnson said. “He brought worldwide attention to motorsports and it was really good for us here stateside.”

While in NASCAR country, Alonso was asked about potentially trying a stock car someday. It’s not something that could happen soon, he said, but it is something he’d like to at least attempt.

“Right now, it looks quite far. The driving technique and the experience all those guys have, it’s difficult for me to achieve that level,” Alonso said. “I will never know until I try, so I would like one day to test a car and after that, driving the car, I will know how enjoyable it will be in racing.

“Outside (watching), the races are great because they are all in a group, it is not predictable at all and until the last lap, you don’t know what is going to happen. We love watching from the outside, but I don’t know from the inside.”

Alonso has so far only had three days of testing at Daytona in the sports car to adjust to a closed cockpit, as well as driving at night and in traffic. Trying different series has been a thrill for him, and he’s still eyeing a way to get Le Mans on his schedule.

“It’s one thing that I would like to do, I would like to compete in the best races in the world, and Le Mans and is one of the top races,” he said. “If that day will be this year or not is still to be discussed, but maybe yes.”

More AP Auto Racing: https://racing.ap.org/