Munoz proves the cream of the 2013 Indy 500 rookies
27 May 2013
It says a lot about the quality of this year's four-strong group of Indianapolis rookies that all of them made it to the end of the race without being involved in a single significant incident for the entire 500 miles of the greatest spectacle of motorsport.
As a former Champ Car driver and current NASCAR Sprint Cup driver, AJ Allmendinger was bound to draw the headlines and media attention. But in terms of raw performance, he was narrowly pipped for the honours by the 21-year-old from Colombia, Firestone Indy Lights regular Carlos Munoz.
Driving for Andretti Autosport in this month's Indy 500 as well as in the Freedom 100 support race, it was hard to see where he's gone wrong - if he had at all in the entire two-week build up as well as the race itself. He'd cruised through his rookie orientation program as expected on opening day, and then led the timesheets in his own right the very next day - the first of a string of Andretti successes in the nine days of practice.
That culminated in second spot on the grid for Sunday's race, and all eyes were on him to see when the pressure would finally get to him and when he would make a mistake - and how big a mistake it would be. The simple answer is that he didn't. At all. If the final restart had gone just a little bit differently, it could easily have been the nose of the #26 out in front when the track went yellow for the final time, and it could have been Munoz rather than Tony Kanaan in victory circle.
"I really wanted to fight for the win," admitted Munoz afterwards. "Maybe I could win. Maybe not, but I really wanted to fight ... You don't know what could have been. I think I had a great car and a great shot to overtake [Kanaan] on the front straight. But you never know. He did a great job.
"I have nothing to be ashamed of - to be second and a rookie and the best of the team is a great job," he said. "At the beginning I was a little bit nervous with the pit stops, but in the end, the car was great, and it's a good second place."
Munoz' success possibly took some of the spotlight off AJ Allmendinger, which might have been a bit of a relief to the 31-year-old from California, who had been nervous returning to open wheel racing after seven years in stock cars but immediately impressed in the new environment for team owner Roger Penske.
"The first issue was I was sissy on the start," he said self-critically. "That might have been the worst Indy 500 start ever! I went from like fifth to 20th in one lap. I'll be ready next time.
"After that, it took me about 40 laps to settle down. We kind of missed the gearing a little bit, we were hitting the rev limiter in sixth the whole time," he continued. "Once the yellow came out, I kind of calmed down and thought about what I needed to do to get around these guys. Once I figured it out, the IZOD Chevy was just a missile.
"It was almost too easy at times just to go by the guys," he marvelled. "It was probably the coolest feeling in my life to take the lead at Indy and lead the Indy 500. That's a feeling I'll never forget."
The biggest problem Allmendinger had was one outside his control, when the seatbelt in the car came undone - a scary thing to happen to any driver at speeds of over 200mph.
"I guess it's God's way of saying, 'Maybe you're not going to win it your first time,'" said Allmendinger philosophically. "I went down into turn 1. I mean, it was 130 laps in, so it wasn't like they were loose or anything, and it just popped out. Maybe it was because my heart was beating too hard from leading the race!
"But it came undone. I tried to do it down the back straightaway. I tried to loosen it back up and stick it back in but it wasn't going to happen," he lamented, having been forced into a premature stop on pit lane to have it taken care of by the pit crew. "The guys did a good job. The stops all day were phenomenal. We didn't lose a ton of time on the pit stop. The only thing that killed us is that it killed our pit windows the rest of the race."
Not that he'd given up: "I really thought, 'With eight to go, I still got a shot at this.'" Then the rest of the race was interrupted by two yellows and Allmendinger never had a chance to strike, ending up in seventh place when the field was frozen for the final time with three laps to go for Dario Franchitti's crash. "It wasn't meant to be. It's really cool for Tony Kanaan and Jimmy Vasser to get their first win here."
While Munoz and Allmendinger stole the headlines, it was also a very solid introduction to the greatest spectacle of motor sport for Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly.
Vautier - already an IZOD IndyCar Series regular this season with Schmidt-Peterson - never really sparked into the sort of form that many expected him to show at Indianapolis but still kept his nose clean and finished in a very creditable 16th place and on the lead lap.
"It was a good race," said Vautier. "We had a very good first stint, made a lot of progress, and unfortunately for some reason the tyre pressures and some other stuff needed to be changed. Nothing major, though, and halfway through, the car started vibrating and getting very loose.
"We were just happy to make up space on the second half of the race," he admitted. "I finished my first Indy 500, so I'm very happy. Big thanks to my team. All of the pit stops were perfect."
Daly on the other hand had a mountain to climb. Not only was he new to Indianapolis Motor Speedway competition (despite being born and raised as an Indiana native), his racing experience has been notable devoid of any oval-shaped circuits, as he's made his name in the European GP3 Series on street and permanent road courses. He was even handicapped by being two days behind the other rookies completing his ROP because he was in Spain competing in that series on the opening weekend of the Indianapolis activities.
Add to that his starring role in the only serious crash of practice - when he crashed the #41 AJ Foyt Racing car and nearly completely rolled it on the Thursday - and you'd have been forgiven for fearing the worst on race day for the son of Irish former F1 and Champ Car driver Derek Daly. But that was far from the case: while he didn't have the pace he needed to stay on the lead lap on this outing, he was still running and finished in 22nd place when the chequered flag came out.
"It was tough," Daly admitted."It's so tough to get behind because it makes it difficult to get back to the front.
"I was pretty happy with the car. After the first stop, we lost the rear brakes. I could not stop the car coming into pit lane, which made it extremely difficult!" he revealed. "We caught fire twice. After catching on fire twice and having no rear brakes, I think we did okay!" he laughed.
He had. All four of the new class of 2013 had done more than okay. And if they come back again in 2014 - as they really should - then they'll no longer be rookies but genuine contenders who would make very worthy winners.
Daly for one sounds well up for it. "This race is awesome. To finish 22nd after starting 31st, I'm pretty happy with that," he said.
"Hopefully in the future, I will be able to drink milk," contributed Munoz, setting his own sights high for next time. "Right now I'm thirsty, but hopefully it's in the future for me!"