Carlos Munoz ready for Indy 500 Rookie Orientation

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Carlos Munoz may not have the biggest name out of this year’s crop of Indianapolis 500 rookies, but that hasn’t dampened his confidence as he prepares to embark on his first “month of May” experience. The Colombian will attempt to make the field in a fifth Chevrolet-powered Andretti Autosport car (the No. 26, backed by Unistraw) and he gets started this weekend with the Rookie Orientation Program at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Munoz, who is also the current points leader in Firestone Indy Lights and will compete in that series’ Freedom 100 at IMS on May 24, tested back in March at Texas Motor Speedway to get acclimated to high-speed ovals. He believes that the test session will prove useful for him.

“[At Texas], it was a really competitive car and that helped my confidence a lot,” he told IndyCar.com. “For sure, Indianapolis will be much different from everything. It’s a long race, so it’s good to have the rookie orientation. Also, I will begin step by step as I did in Texas and gain all the information I can.”

Compared to his fellow rookies — A.J. Allmendinger of Team Penske, Tristan Vautier of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and Conor Daly of A.J. Foyt Racing — Munoz would appear to have the least amount of star power. However, he has a wealth of veteran resources to guide him along. Team owner Michael Andretti, strategist John Tzouanakis, and the four regular Andretti Autosport drivers (Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti and E.J. Viso) all certainly know a few things about the Brickyard.

There’s also something equally important that is steering Munoz: A childhood memory. He was just 10 years old when fellow Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya buried the field in the 2000 Indy 500 and he remembers the reaction that came afterwards in his hometown of Bogota, Colombia’s capital.

“I remember the cars with the flags in the streets when he won,” Munoz said. “It was quite a sight. Everyone was so proud.”

He’d certainly like to set off another euphoric celebration back in Bogota at the end of this month.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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