Rookies ready to rock the Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS -- This year's Indianapolis 500 rookie class isn't large, but it has made its presence known.

Carlos Munoz, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly are a trio of talented 20-somethings for whom big things are predicted.

Munoz, a 21-year-old Colombian, was fastest in two of the eight practice days and qualified in the middle of the front row for his first IZOD IndyCar Series start.

Vautier, 23, from France, has shown exceptional pace in road course testing and has settled in comfortably in his rookie season.

And Daly, 21, from the Indianapolis suburb of Noblesville, is a second-generation star who brings some local flavor to the event.

Here's a bit more insight into this year's Indy first-timers:

Carlos Munoz

Munoz was just 8 years old when his countryman Juan Pablo Montoya took a stunning rookie victory in the 2000 Indianapolis 500, from second on the grid.

"I remember when I was back in Colombia when Montoya won this race," Munoz said. "It was really special for me. And right now I'm in the same spot as him in the Indy 500 on a really good team."

Munoz came up through the formula car ranks in Europe before moving to America to contest the Indy Lights championship in 2012. He won two races, including the season finale at Auto Club Speedway in California.

Back for another Indy Lights campaign with Andretti Autosport, Munoz had the budget to add an Indianapolis 500 ride to his program this year. He has clearly adapted very quickly to the bigger, more powerful car.

Munoz will compete in Friday's Freedom 100 Lights race before the 500-mile main show Sunday.

"I have a lot of confidence," he said. "Last year, in my first Lights race here, I did second place. I had a great car and fought for the win. It's going to be tough doing 600 miles in one weekend, but I think we have perfect cars in both Indy Lights and IndyCar, so I'm going to be hopefully in the front row in both categories."

Munoz has dominated Indy Lights this year, taking pole position and fastest lap in all three races, and winning at Barber Motorsports Park and Long Beach.

He's in solid position to potentially join Montoya and Helio Castroneves (2001) as rookie winners of the 500. His qualifying speed of 228.342 mph was beaten only by Ed Carpenter.

"Right now, I don't have too many words to describe how happy I am," Munoz said. "As a rookie to be in the front row, it's just a dream. I have my teammate just on the side of me, I have great people around me with a lot of experience.

"I'm really happy, but still a long, long way to go," he added. "This is just the beginning."

Tristan Vautier

Vautier is proof that a driver doesn't have to buy his way into the IndyCar Series.

By winning championships in Star Mazda and Indy Lights, Vautier won scholarships to advance up the IndyCar ladder system. Now he has reached the top, driving the No. 55 entry for Schmidt/Peterson Motorsports alongside fellow Frenchman (and 2012 Rookie of the Year) Simon Pagenaud.

"It's been a great adventure since I arrived here for a test in 2010 with the goal to climb up the ladder, and it worked," Vautier said. "I have my chance in the IZOD IndyCar Series now. It's a great opportunity, and hopefully I get a chance to make a name for myself in IndyCar. We accomplished a lot, but hopefully there's more to come."

The Schmidt teams struggled somewhat in practice and on Pole Day, but Vautier could have qualified plenty faster on Bump Day had he needed to summon up the speed. He'll start Sunday's race from 28th place after running 224.873 mph.

He won four races en route to the Indy Lights championship a year ago and finished third in the 2012 Freedom 100.

"Indy Lights mainly taught you the line to use on the track," Vautier observed. "Certainly it was a good introduction. But I think the racing in IndyCar is going to be pretty different. You cannot run side by side as much in [an] Indy car. You cannot run as close to other cars because the air turbulence is way bigger.

"I'm still learning the traffic aspect in the Indy car."

Conor Daly

Daly always knew he wanted to be a racing driver. The question was: IndyCar or Formula One?

Daly's father, Derek, did both. And Conor has that possibility in front of him, as well. He has split the past two years between America and Europe, running Indy Lights here and GP3 there, trying to gain a foothold in both continents.

A key moment came this past winter when Daly was asked to handle some testing duties for A.J. Foyt Racing at Sebring. That ultimately led to the invitation to drive Foyt's second ABC Supply-sponsored car in the Indianapolis 500.

"He ran well at Sebring when we needed someone to do some testing in the offseason," Foyt said. "He was fast, smooth and didn't get in trouble. I found him to be very savvy on the chassis setups.

"I've run a lot of rookies at Indy, and I think Conor will do a good job for us."

Daly suffered the only crash of the week, heavily damaging the right side of his No. 41 car Thursday.

The car was hastily repaired, but engine problems on Pole Day prevented the 21-year-old from completing his qualifying run. He eventually put it in the show on Bump Day with a 223.582 mph average and will line up on the inside of the back row in 31st place.

"The crash was a big learning experience for me because I was able to feel how the car was on the edge a little bit too far," Daly admitted.

"I almost can't describe what it means to have the opportunity to race in the Indianapolis 500," he added. "I know this will sound cheesy, but I've never been happier in my life. This race means so much to me."