Rookie Carlos Munoz: Indy’s biggest surprise to date this year

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A little more than one month ago, only the most ardent of IndyCar observers had heard of, or really paid attention to, Andretti Autosport Indianapolis 500 rookie Carlos Munoz.

Now, mere days before the 97th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Colombian is probably the month of May’s biggest surprise.

Munoz really came on towards the end of last Indy Lights season driving for Andretti, posting a pair of wins in Edmonton and Fontana. He’s a championship favorite this season, with wins already at Barber and Long Beach and searching for his third in a row Friday in the Firestone Freedom 100.

Oh, and he starts second in the 500 on Sunday. It’s the same accomplishment as his countryman, Juan Pablo Montoya, achieved in 2000 – Montoya went on to win the race.

Munoz is the fourth driver to race in both IndyCar and Indy Lights at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the same month. He had his first IndyCar test at Texas in March, and described his preparation for the month of May during the Long Beach weekend.

“I had had a really good day (in Texas), and I got very comfortable in the car,” Munoz told me at Long Beach. “I knew we had to go step-by-step; learn the track, learn the car and everything. We got faster and faster but I knew we had a really good car for the Indy 500.”

Easy for him to say at the time, but him following through in reality was a tough ask. So far, Munoz has passed with flying colors.

Running an aggressive line through Turn 1, Munoz has flirted with disaster with entering late and then diving underneath the white line. But it appears to be working. He’s stepped into a car, the No. 26 Unistraw Chevrolet, that has been among – if not the – quickest of the five-car Andretti armada this month.

“In the beginning, I was really nervous about it. But once I was in the car, everything was clear,” Munoz said after qualifying for the 500. “It seems easier on the TV. For four laps you have to be really precise each lap. If you turn a little bit later or a little bit earlier, the whole car is different.”

Thursday marked the first time this month Munoz shifted back to his regular car in Indy Lights. He qualified second there, as well, behind Sage Karam. The focus Friday shifts solely to Lights, even though there’s Carb Day practice for IndyCar beforehand.

“We had so much fun last year in that race because we were overtaking all the time,” Munoz said Thursday. “But I am going one-by-one. I am focusing first with Indy Lights – then I will focus on the Indy 500.”

Former 5-time ALMS and Le Mans-winning team owner Dave Maraj killed in accident

Photo courtesy Dave Maraj Facebook page
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Well-known sports car team owner and automobile dealership owner Dave Maraj was killed Saturday night in a boating accident in Florida, according to SportsCar365.com.

Maraj’s Champion Racing teams won five consecutive American Le Mans Series championships from 2004 through 2008, and also captured the overall win in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2005, the last American team to do so in the iconic sports car race.

IMSA President Scott Atherton released the following statement mourning Maraj’s passing:

Dave Maraj. Photo courtesy IMSA.

“All of us at IMSA are shocked and saddened by the news of Dave Maraj’s passing. As a team owner in the American Le Mans Series, Dave and his Champion Racing organization were the epitome of professionalism and excellence, as their five series championships and 24 Hours of Le Mans victory will attest.

“Dave was a tremendous competitor and a great friend to all in the paddock throughout his time in our sport. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Dave’s family and friends and to all of his associates at Champion Motors.”

Maraj was a very successful automobile dealership owner, most notably Champion Motors and Champion Porsche in Pompano Beach, Florida, the latter considered the No. 1 Porsche dealer in the U.S.

Details of how Maraj died have not been released.

Maraj sold his racing operation after the 2008 season and devoted himself to his Porsche and Audi auto dealerships, as well as competitive sailing.