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Carlos Munoz continues Indy’s rookie tradition

A Colombian rookie driving for a powerhouse team qualifies second for the Indianapolis 500. On race day, said rookie leads 167 of 200 laps in one of the most dominating Indy 500 wins since the 1970s.

Carlos Munoz, then an 8-year-old boy in Bogota, watched Juan Pablo Montoya do that in 2000. Munoz could finish the rerun in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

“I remember me going in the streets with my family with our car and the flags,” said Munoz, who now lives in Key Biscayne. “All of Colombia [was] celebrating his victory. It’s something so emotional for me. I want to repeat that, to be an inspiration for the young people to drive.”

Munoz already drew notice as the season points leader for Indy Lights, IndyCar’s feeder series. Also, he plans to drive both the Firestone Freedom 100 Indy Lights race on Friday, then the Indy 500 on Sunday. Now, he draws notice because he could very well win both races. Ask J.R. Hildebrand, whose rookie run ended when he crashed out of the lead in Turn 4 on the final lap in 2011.

Added by the Andretti Autosport team for Indy, Munoz was overshadowed in practice by teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay (of Fort Lauderdale), E.J. Viso, James Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti. But one of the most competitive runs at the pole ever — less than a second over the four-lap run separated pole-sitter Ed Carpenter from 11th-best Alex Tagliani — ended with Munoz’s 228.342 mph average, which was good enough for the middle of Row 1.

“My main goal was to be in the first nine,” Munoz said. “It’s good to be in the front rows. In the middle of the field, there’s a lot of mess, a lot of crashes. But you don’t expect to be in the front row, really. My teammates had a little bit of different stuff compared to the other cars. Marco was really fast. Also, the Penske guys were always fast. Just in the last qualifying, they were not so strong and I improved a little bit.”

Munoz pointed out that Reay won the IndyCar series title last year, and Andretti Autosport drivers have won three of the four IndyCar races this year. Last year, Munoz finished second in the Indy Lights race at Indianapolis.

“I think I have a good feeling for it,” Munoz said of oval tracks.

Stunning rookie qualifiers have been as much an Indianapolis 500 tradition as fan coolers stocked with cold fried chicken, lunch meat sandwiches and beer.

The oldest at the Speedway talk about Walt Faulkner blazing to the 1950 pole in record time and Jim Hurtubise narrowly missing the first official 150 mph lap in 1960. The middle-aged recall future four-time winner Rick Mears being part of the first 200-mph front row in 1978 and Teo Fabi breaking the one- and four-lap records in 1983, when nobody felt the records set the previous year would be touched.

A generation later, only a Lap 1, Turn 1 wobble kept rookie Danica Patrick off the 2004 pole.

Race Day fortunes, however ... Patrick came the closest to winning, leading as late as Lap 193. None of the others truly contended, although Fabi led the first 23 laps in 1983.

Montoya’s the exception, but he wasn’t a rookie in the way Munoz is or the above drivers were. (Munoz’s parallel actually would be Mears, added to the roster of a strong team, Penske Racing, for the 500-mile races that season.)

Montoya arrived as the defending champion of the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) circuit — the series the current IndyCar series broke from in 1996 as the Indy Racing League — and already had a Formula 1 ticket. In fact, IRL founder Tony George argued at that time that Montoya’s crushing win didn’t establish CART superiority over IRL because Montoya was CART’s best and “he’ll be driving Formula 1 next year.”

“It opened the mind of many youngsters like me,” said Sebastian Saavedra, who’ll start 27th on Sunday. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, if you just try hard enough, you’ll be able to do whatever is out there.”

Saavedra and Munoz grew up about five miles from each other in Bogota, raced against each other in karting and were teammates last season in Indy Lights. Munoz, upon returning from five years of racing in various European Formula feeder series, decided to plant himself in Miami, where his family had a vacation home during his youth.

As comfortable as Munoz is in Miami, he admits he will be nervous Sunday. On no other race day does sheer crowd size, spectacle and weight of tradition make its presence known to drivers as it does at Indianapolis. Saavedra likened it to being in a giant gladiator stadium.

“On Sunday, with all those people, I will be nervous because it’s the first time,” Munoz said. “But once I go inside the car, I think my mind will be clear to concentrate and do my best performance. And, let’s see what it’s like to see more than 400,000 people around there. Michael [Andretti, team owner and former driver] told me on Race Day, the front straightaway seems smaller with that many people. So, let’s see how that sensation is.”

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