There are some drivers that just have the instinct. The feel. The ability to become one with the track, to anticipate changes of grip before they surface, to use the winds to generate speed. It’s the trickery of the Indy 500. So many drivers have told me: No one lap at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the same as the previous, no corner identical to the other three.
The dimensions tell you they’re matching. All are listed as 9 degrees, 12 minutes. Yet, the degree of difficulty can change with the movement of the sun, the clouds or the other 32 cars, turning minutes to hours.
In the careers of some of the all-time greats, Indy seemed to be the Mt. Everest of their resume, the 800 turns on race each appearing as a daunting snow-peaked ridge unable to be surmounted. To others, their car seemed to groove to IMS like the electric slot cars I used to zoom around my parents’ kitchen table; glued to the track and clicking circuits with the ease of a button.
Carlos Munoz is in Category 2. The Colombian has three top-fives and four top-10s in his five Indy 500 starts. Last May, he turned in perhaps his most impressive Indy effort. Yes, his 10th-place finish doesn't stand out like his pair of runner-up results, but Munoz started 24th and came home 10th in a car that one team member told me “wasn’t in the top 25” that day.
After climbing out second in the 100th Running of the Indy 500, Munoz vowed to someday put his likeness on the Borg-Warner Trophy. There is no doubt he has the moxie to get it done, and in 2018 he should have the car, as well. Andretti Autosport announced its 2018 May partnership with Munoz this week and it could be a marriage toasted by a swig of milk. But, rest assured, the competition will be fierce.
In 2013, Munoz became the third Colombian in 29 years to finish in the top two of his first Indianapolis 500. The first? Roberto Guerrero. The second? A guy who won the 2000 race in his maiden voyage and may be looking for a shot to become a three-time winner this May: Juan Pablo Montoya.
Montoya will be running sports cars for Team Penske in 2018, but team owner Roger Penske recently confirmed he does not plan to run five cars in the 102nd “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves is confirmed to join Penske’s full-time trio of Josef Newgarden, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud – three drivers who have all been Verizon IndyCar Series champions but still looking for their first entry into Indy's victory lane.
Montoya has Penske’s blessing to run with another team in May, but he may be playing musical chairs with six top-10 finishes, including a podium result in 2009. Danica Patrick is more than just one of the most famous names in North American motorsports. She narrowly missed the pole as a rookie, has led laps in multiple years and has completed 1,371 of the 1,400 eligible laps in her seven starts. The Illinois native will be vying to finish her racing career with an Indy 500 run and merits strong consideration from any team with an opening. Therein lies the trick.
It's not uncommon for deals to be completed around the time when flowers begin to bloom near 16th and Georgetown, so seeing rosters fill in mid-December forecasts some serious drama for May of 2018. After impressive runs in 2017, Gabby Chaves has secured a seat with Harding Racing, while sports car owner Michael Shank will hope to come up aces with a Jack – Harvey, that is. Zach Veach and Stefan Wilson will each attempt to qualify for his second Indy 500, both running for Andretti Autosport, while Juncos Racing will field 2017 Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser. One would assume Pippa Mann's posse will be poised to take a shot in 2018 and JR Hildebrand will surely be carrying his helmet waiting for his chance.
It is often said that the Indy 500 is “Christmas in May.” Which is why it’s fantastic to be talking May at Christmas.
And we still have 5 months to go.