Mar 20, 2014, 4:45 PM EDT
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.