Munoz feels comfortable on IMS oval, even with new team in Foyt

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Carlos Munoz is understandably confident when he returns to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and that’s rather important considering who he’s driving for these days.

The two-time Indianapolis 500 runner-up with Andretti Autosport has joined AJ Foyt Racing in 2017, which means learning from a legend who built his name at the legendary track with four Indy 500 victories as part of a Hall of Fame career that included a record 67 Indy car wins.

Munoz’s previous boss, Michael Andretti, ranks third on that all-time list with 42 victories.

“Not many drivers can say they’ve driven for the two of the biggest names in American motor racing,” said Munoz, driving the iconic No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet this season. “There’s Foyt and there’s Andretti, that’s been a real privilege for me. For sure, each have a different mentality. Being with A.J. is really nice. A four-time Indy 500 champion, that says a lot about him.”

It also speaks volumes that Foyt and his son, team president Larry Foyt, hired Munoz to help rebuild a team that is in search of its first win since Takuma Sato triumphed at Long Beach in 2013. The team has just five top-five finishes in 87 starts the past three seasons, all by Sato, who was signed by Andretti Autosport in an essential swap of drivers.

As an understated Colombian rookie just trying to make a mark while racing fulltime in Indy Lights in 2013, Munoz showed what he’s capable of when given a fast car by finishing second in his first Indianapolis 500. He was second again last year in that race and fourth in 2014.

In the past three Verizon IndyCar Series seasons, Munoz has 10 top-five finishes with a 2015 victory at the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

But his Verizon IndyCar Series confidence started growing at IMS.

“I know what the car needs to do to go fast here,” Munoz said at last weekend’s Chevy manufacturer test day on the 2.5-mile oval. “I know what the feel of a good car is, so hopefully I can bring the car to the direction I want.

“I am confident here. I can do this. I think qualifying is going to be a little bit tougher for us this year, but for the race, if you have a good car, you can win.”

The team’s offseason change in engine manufacturers to Chevrolet from Honda has engineers, mechanics and drivers playing catch-up with learning the aero kit, among other differences. Munoz finished 21st in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg while teammate Conor Daly was 15th.

“The team is new with the package, so it’s going to take some time to get used to it, but I think we’re going to be good,” Munoz said.

What helps is how much the 25-year-old Munoz has grown since his series debut. Most noticeably, his English has improved, which not only helps in relaying information to mechanics but also in interacting with the public, be it sponsors at team functions or fans.

When Saturday’s scheduled test was postponed to Sunday due to cold track temperatures, Munoz and Daly joined a driver contingent that visited Turn 2 to sign autographs. Once shy and unsure, Munoz was engaging and approachable with fans on the infield grass mounds.

“I’ve been changing,” he said. “When I arrived here first, I had more of a European mentality, more quiet, more serious. I’ve been better with the English. Much better, so now it’s been easier for me to communicate. When you’re enjoying what you’re doing, you always change a lot. Of course, when things don’t go well, my attitude changes.

“But, yeah, I’ve been in America for more than five years so I know the mentality here and it has changed me. People are more open and I really enjoy it here in America, how everything works.”

Foyt, 82, is known for his no-nonsense demeanor when dealing with drivers. He made the trip from Texas for the test. Old-school racing insights aren’t too old for the new hire.

“When he talks to me about his stories here at the Indy 500, it’s amazing, about his first Indy 500 and how now it’s so different,” Munoz said of Foyt. “At the end of the day, you still drive the same way. It doesn’t matter if it was a long time ago.”

Munoz can go a long way to impressing his legendary boss with another strong run in the Indianapolis 500. AJ Foyt Racing’s last top 10 in the prestigious race was when Eliseo Salazar finished seventh in 2001.

Considering Munoz’s track record so far, which also includes strong Indy Lights runs at IMS, he’s eager to return in May when the money is on the line.

“Even in Indy Lights, I finished second my first year,” he said. “Then there was a wild finish when I was leading the whole race and on the last straight I finished fourth. I had two seconds in the Indy 500, one fourth place and a penalty (that dropped him to 20th in 2015).

“I’ve had really good cars those years with Andretti and some really good teammates that helped me so I could be quicker. I’ve been running good here from the first time.”

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