By Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer
Carlos Munoz’s planned return to Andretti Autosport didn’t start with a trip to the race shop or a discussion at the track.
Instead it began with a wedding.
“Funny story because Marco (Andretti) invited me to his wedding,” Munoz said in a Tuesday INDYCAR teleconference. “I went to the wedding. I start talking to J-F (Thormann) and Michael (Andretti) about what they’re going to do next year. They said they’re going to do six cars in the Indy 500, all in-house. I say, ‘Whoa, that was interesting.’
“So we started talking after the wedding to see what was going on. Just a few days ago, I think last week, we finalized all the little details.”
The end result was unveiled on Monday, with Munoz returning to the team that he competed for full-time in the Verizon IndyCar Series (VICS) from 2014-16 for a run in next May’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.
Munoz will pilot the team’s sixth and final entry – bringing back a pairing that tallied two runner-up results and a fourth-place finish in four attempts at ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ before Munoz left for AJ Foyt Racing in 2017. Also competing for Andretti Autosport in the event will be Marco – the man whose wedding led to Munoz’s return – former winners Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay, team newcomer Zach Veach and fellow part-timer Stefan Wilson.
With six teams all set to compete, some might worry that Munoz might not get a fair allotment of resources for the run. But the Columbian has no doubt in his former team after seeing their performance in recent years.
“When I talk to Marco, to Jeff, Michael, at the wedding, they say all of the six cars, they’re going to go in-house made with their own people, with no other teams in the middle,” Munoz said. “(It) was really interesting, you know, because I thought maybe the sixth car would be with another team in the middle and wouldn’t be the same.
“Andretti has shown, like, doesn’t matter if they put four or five cars, they always been quick, all of them, like in the get-go. They do a really good job of being really quick, all of them.”
While Munoz has confidence in his team, there is still another variable that has the entire field anxious for the upcoming Month of May – the new 2018 aerokits.
The new aerokits debuted by the VICS in June will be utilized full-time next season, and the changes made to the cars should signal a change in handling and setup for the many teams that will flock to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway next May.
“Next year with the new car, all the teams starting from zero, it’s going to be completely different car, you know,” Munoz said. “The driving style, as well. Mechanical setup is going to be completely different. Now is a question mark how competitive all the teams is going to be, who is going to be the fastest.”
With the uncertainty expected for the upcoming Indy 500, Munoz believes that having six cars could become a significant advantage for Andretti.
“I think we are the only team with six cars,” he said. “I think most of the other teams have only two cars. So I think that’s going to be really, really good for us to work because one week goes by really quick of testing. So one week we can test different stuff, roll centers, wheel base, different dampers.
“A lot of things we can change in six cars makes that much easier. I think is going to be really positive for us.”
Regardless of the car he’ll strap into, Munoz is most grateful to be returning to Andretti – the team that fueled Munoz to seven podiums and a victory at Belle Isle Park prior to his 2017 move to Foyt.
The upcoming year will be a new challenge for the 25-year old, marking his first season in more than a decade without running full-time. But to Munoz, the price is worth it to return to an organization where he feels he can succeed.
“Next year, I wanted to be with Andretti,” Munoz said. “That was my number one priority. If it was full season, or 500, I know I have a car to win it. Those were my two priorities. If is not full season, let’s try the 500. After we sign the 500 with the best team, then we start working to see if we can do other races or other championships.
“As of right now, my main focus is going to be the 500. I think it’s going to be a little bit challenging personally, because I’ve been racing the full season since I was eight years old in go-karts, in formula. I think it’s going to be a little bit challenging for me because it’s a first time I’m going to do that. So that mean I have to stay really in shape, go to the gym a lot, doing a lot of go-kart, for sure.”
As for his old team, Munoz is grateful for the lesson the move offered him.
“First off, I’m thankful to have the opportunity that A.J. gave me to race with him,” he said. “Unfortunately stuff didn’t work out, you know, as we planned. But I think things happen for a reason. Right now being in the Indy 500 with Andretti, that’s pretty good, you know.
“But I think even though last year was a tough year, I think it helped me a lot, a lot, a lot. I think I’m twice better driver than I was one year ago because having a different role as a driver, to be more involved with the team, with the technical, I learn so much engineering-wise last year than ever because in Andretti they have so good team that, you know, you just focus on driving, and the driver is good.”
Munoz will get his shot at the Indy 500’s prestigious Borg-Warner Trophy on May 27, 2018.
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