Carlos Muñoz can't wait to compete in his first Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, but he isn't allowing the emotions to overwhelm him, either.
In an exclusive phone interview with SB Nation on Wednesday morning, the current Indy Lights championship leader continually repeated the words "focus" and "hard work" as his keys to success in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
It's a mature approach, somewhat surprising coming out of the mouth of a 21-year-old rookie from Bogotá, Columbia.
The month of May has been a blur for Muñoz, who will compete in the Indy 500 for Andretti Autosport, the team that has dominated every practice and qualifying session held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway thus far. While Muñoz expected to be competitive, he never expected to be the first rookie to start on the front row since Juan Pablo Montoya (his idol) in 2000.
Montoya won that race, by the way.
"The truth is, I didn't expect everything to go this well," Muñoz said. "Knowing that I was working with a first-class team gave me a lot of confidence but how could anyone have expected things to be this good? The guys on the team are real easy to work with and it has been a great atmosphere from the very first day we started working together."
Muñoz attributes the success shared by all five Andretti teams to their willingness to work together for the benefit of the entire organization. That wasn't a trait he was exposed to in the ultra-ambitious Formula 1 ladder system he's been competing in since 2007.
"My teammates have been really great about sharing information and giving me driving tips," Muñoz said. "All of us get together and talk about what we like and didn't like and what our engineers can do to find the best setup for all of our cars. Their success here is about more than a powerful Chevrolet or resources, it's about good people and it's starting to pay off I think."
Despite the prestige of Indianapolis, Muñoz explained that his primary goal this season was to win the Indy Lights championship, a dream that is being realized through three races this season. He enters the Freedom 100 Lights race at the Speedway with a 21-point lead over Englishman Jack Hawksworth.
Muñoz also appears poised to become the first driver to win both the Freedom 100 and Indianapolis 500. He believes the extra track time could be to his benefit in his attempt to win both races this weekend.
"For sure, the practice sessions and extra 100 miles will teach me several new things," Muñoz said. "While the cars are different the track is the same and there is a lot that I believe will carry over, especially with how the cars work in traffic. It never hurts to get more track time at Indianapolis."
For the 500, Muñoz will start second and hopes to lead early. While it is important that the team receives data on how the car handles in traffic, Muñoz believes taking advantage of a fast car and avoiding possible accidents in the middle of the field will be paramount in regards to winning on Sunday -- that, and not receiving a pit road penalty.
"That's the one thing that Michael (Andretti) and my teammates have warned me about," Muñoz said. "It's a common rookie mistake to speed or have an error and having to come down pit road on the rev limiter will kill you. So I'm going to work really hard to avoid that."
Ultimately, Muñoz wants to win the Indianapolis 500. He wants to win it for himself, his team and his family. But more than anything else, Muñoz wants to win the 500 to act as a unifying force for racing fans in his native Columbia.
"I don't like to anticipate what it would be like to win the race," Muñoz said. "I want to put in my best work and if I do that, the results will come. And I hope that result will reunite the people of Columbia to our sport. I want to do the same thing that Juan Pablo Montoya was able to do for our country and I want make them proud."
The Indy Lights Freedom 100 will be held at 12:30 p.m. EDT on Carb Day, this Friday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The race will be televised live by the NBC Sports Network. The Indianapolis 500 will start at noon on Sunday on ABC.