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After nearly winning Indianapolis 500, Carlos Munoz focuses on Indy Lights title

If not for a yellow flag with 2 1/2 laps left in this year's Indianapolis 500, Carlos Munoz might have become the youngest champion in one of auto racing's iconic events.

Still, what the 21-year-old Colombian accomplished at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway over Memorial Day weekend served notice that his second season on the Indy Lights circuit will likely be his last.

Munoz, who was in third place behind Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan when the late yellow flag was dropped, seemed disappointed at the time to finish second behind Kanaan, who won his first Indy 500 in his 12th attempt.

A little more than a month later, however, Munoz is starting to appreciate the significance of what he did as an Indy 500 newcomer, which included the fastest qualifying time ever for a rookie.

"It was an awesome experience," Munoz said on an IndyCar teleconference Tuesday, prior to races this weekend in Toronto. "Before the Indy 500, I didn't have any results. My main goal was to finish the race, to be the last leader, to don't make any mistakes."

Despite an aggressive driving style that has led to three victories and five poles in seven starts this season on the second-tier series of open wheel racing, Munoz managed to stay away from potential race-ending scrapes — or worse — and led on five different occasions for a total of 12 laps at the Brickyard in May.

Munoz, who started second in the front row, recalled a conversation he had before the race with one of his mentors — fellow Colombian racer Juan Pablo Montoya, who won the Indy 500 in his first try in 2000.

"When I talked to him, he said to me, 'You have this opportunity because you have a nice, really good car,' " Munoz said. " 'You never know when you're going to have, again, another strong car. So you have to take this opportunity.' I was thinking that. I was a little bit sad [finishing second] … But I'm just 21 years old. Hopefully, I will have more chances."

Given his performance this year — punctuated by a dominant Indy Lights win last weekend at Pocono Raceway — it seems likely that Munoz will be back again in the Indy 500 next year as a full-time driver on auto racing's top open-wheel circuit.

But Munoz and his team are looking more short-term. With a couple of big street races coming up — the Indy Lights Toronto 100 on Saturday and the Grand Prix of Baltimore in September — Munoz will have a good chance to edge out a fellow phenom, 18-year-old Sage Karam, in the Indy Lights standings. He currently leads Karam by four points with five races remaining this season.

"For the team, Michael, the whole Andretti team, everyone wants to win this championship in Indy Lights because it's been a lot of years without winning it," Munoz said. "So they really think they have a shot to do it, and they want me to win the championship and focus next year on a full-time season in IndyCar."

What Munoz has done in Indy Lights after a fairly unspectacular start to his racing career in Europe has surprised many, including himself.

After three years of karting, Munoz spent five seasons on the various levels below Formula One, getting as far as Formula Three but never finishing higher than seventh in the standings. In his first year of Indy Lights in 2012, Munoz won twice and had five Top 3 finishes — or podiums — in 12 starts.

"Really before last year in Europe, in Formula Three, I had bad luck," Munoz said. "The team, we struggled a lot. I moved back to America to have good results, really. Really this year has been the greatest of my career. I didn't expect that much."

What he did in the Indianapolis 500 was nearly shocking.

Asked if he was surprised by Munoz's performance at the Indy 500 given his inexperience, three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves said Tuesday: "Every time you finish a [500-mile] race, it's a surprise, especially a rookie. But certainly, for me, watching him race, being very aggressive, I thought he would have a problem. But at the end of the day, it was a great result for him."

While many might consider Munoz a sudden success, it has been a sometimes torturous, often deflating, decade-long journey that first took a then-11-year-old Munoz away from his family in Bogota, Colombia, all the way to Europe. Munoz went there with Santiago Porteiro, a former Formula One driver from Spain who still coaches Munoz.

"I knew I wanted to be a professional racecar driver, an IndyCar driver, and I knew I had to sacrifice everything for it," Munoz said. "It was really tough for me and my family, being miles away. You know you're not a normal kid, but I really matured … I had a great family there to help me a lot as a driver and a person."

Despite his near dominance this season on the Indy Lights circuit, Munoz said that he is still adjusting to the different types of tracks in the United States and that smaller ovals, such as Milwaukee and Iowa, give him trouble. The other adjustment is the physical and mental grind of the Indy Lights circuit.

"I've been losing a lot of weight, getting lots of muscles," he said. "That's really part of my improving this year because I'm mentally stronger, physically more stronger than last year.

"So that helps me a lot … After the [Indy 500], I was like really, really tired, because you have accumulation of a lot of hours of training and being in the car. So it was really challenging for me that month. It paid really good — all that hard work. "

don.markus@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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