Allmendinger Enjoys Ride After Taking Long, Winding Road To Indy 500
When AJ Allmendinger was lighting it up in the Champ Car World Series from 2004-2006, he looked like the next great American open-wheel racing star. He was young, talented and a winner with five wins in 13 races in 2006. But he never got a chance to compete in the Indianapolis 500 because those were the years before Champ Car teams joined the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2008 to give the United States a unified open-wheel series.
By then, Allmendinger was driving stock cars in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. He was good enough to drive for such team owners as Richard Petty before he finally got what appeared to be the ride of a lifetime at Penske Racing.
But by midseason of 2012, Allmendinger was out of the Penske ride after he failed a NASCAR substance abuse test. But rather than give up completely on Allmendinger, team owner Roger Penske decided to give him another chance, this time in an IZOD IndyCar Series car.
Allmendinger, from Los Gatos, Calif., drove the No. 2 IZOD Dallara/Chevrolet in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in preparation for the 97th Indianapolis 500.
In a career that has taken many unexpected twists and turns, Allmendinger gets to compete in the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in his career and will be set to give the winningest team owner in Indy 500 history a shot at the Indy 500 pole Saturday.
“I’m having fun with it,” Allmendinger said. “At times it was frustrating because I want to run better and I want to win, but the most fun I’m having is with the guys on the team. Everybody on this organization is so fun to be around. To even out those expectations it’s been more fun than I ever thought I would have. If I got a chance to be with Roger Penske, I’m going to stay. I’m not going to be dumb and turn that down.
“If I’m full-time next year, my focus is on IndyCar.”
Allmendinger finally made it to the Indianapolis 500 nearly 10 years after he wanted to be there.
“With the split, it was tough,” Allmendinger said. “At that time, it was hard to understand what was actually going to happen. It was a race that was hard to watch sitting at home racing basically the same car and not at the Indy 500. Then when I went to NASCAR, you don’t know what is going to happen in life. I always thought I could plan things out, but you learn in life you can’t plan anything out. For me, I’m really happy now that I’m here that I have this opportunity.
“Roger called me up and asked, ‘What do you think of running the Indy 500 for me?’ I said, ‘Yes, I can make that happen.’ It’s been a fun process, and there is still a long way to go before we get to Race Day.”
Allmendinger was the seventh-fastest driver during a rain-shortened “Fast Friday” with a lap at 227.199 mph. He gives Team Penske three talented drivers, including three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Brazil and Will Power of Australia as all three drivers hope to make the “Fast Nine” in qualifications Saturday.
“Back when I was in Champ Car and growing up through open-wheel racing, this was the pinnacle,” Allmendinger said. “I always wanted to be here, and as the split happened and Champ Car wasn't here, and I never got the opportunity to run here, it was always disappointing. The Memorial Day weekend, it was always difficult sitting at home watching it and not having a chance to run it, especially being a Indy-car driver at that point, and obviously over the last seven years being in NASCAR, just to watch it on TV was kind of always a thing…
“Sunday morning before the Cup race, I'd sit there and watch Indy 500 and just always wanted to be here. Always did. I’m happy to have the opportunity to be here with Team Penske and for Roger to give me the opportunity to kind of live out a dream and to be here with no better team than Team Penske. It's kind of a dream come true. And having to deal with Will and Helio a little bit for two weeks straight gets a little much.
“Today Helio was singing Taylor Swift to me. It was rough. It was hard. But other than that, it's been a lot of fun so far.”
The three drivers at Team Penske aren’t the “Odd Couple” – they are more the “Troublesome Trio.” The other day in the team’s garage area in Gasoline Alley, Power and Allmendinger had a ruler and were measuring each other’s noses.
While these three can always be counted on for a good laugh, they are also fierce competitors on the racetrack.
Getting back to an open-wheel race car was supposed to feel easy to Allmendinger. But after so many seasons driving a stock car in NASCAR, it actually felt strange.
“It showed me the last seven years how much NASCAR racing I have done because it felt strange,” Allmendinger said. “I would get back in the Cup car, and it felt normal, and the IndyCar felt like a unicycle again. It’s been tough, but it’s been a fun challenge. Helio, Will and Rick (Mears) and everybody at Team Penske have helped me out so much. I don’t feel like the third car here. I feel like I have a chance to win just like Will and Helio.
“I’m not at that comfort level yet, though. But this is a great second chance. It’s a chance that I feel that I worked hard to get but didn’t deserve, to be honest with you. To have Roger give me the opportunity again is the second coming of a dream come true, especially here at Indy. I’ve tried to keep myself in the moment each day of what I need to focus on, but I know when Race Day hits and I walk through Gasoline Alley there and there 300,000 people here and I get introduced as Team Penske, that is when it is really going to hit.”
Allmendinger took plenty of hits in his NASCAR career, not just when his car hit the wall but also to his pride and ego. All too often it would end up ruling his life.
“Seven years of NASCAR were so difficult, and I was in a world that I wasn’t used to; it was just so unnatural,” Allmendinger said. “In NASCAR, I would get kicked and kicked, and then I would be down, and I would get kicked some more. With everything that happened, I don’t say no to anything. I just look at every opportunity and take it as it comes each day.
“In NASCAR because it is every weekend, it will take over your life. I got to the point where I looked at those priorities of life that if I had a bad week it dictated your life as a person. I let it determine who I was, what I thought of myself, whether I was happy or sad or even needed to be around. It took over, and that is what I had to say to myself was not let it control myself.”
He also didn’t believe the transition from stock cars back to Indy cars would nearly be as hard as it is.
“The thing I thought would be easier was adapting back to the car,” Allmendinger said. “I thought I would jump back in it and take a day and be back up to speed. But the competition level is the highest it has been in 20 years in IndyCar. The field is really close, and all the drivers are so good now. It’s been a different awakening of sorts to get used to it again, but it’s been a fun challenge.
“I think for me it's just every day is like starting over, just kind of a reset. And I guess in a way you never want to get too comfortable. For me it's just going out there and I kind of just reset my mind, and those first laps are always a little -- kind of got the nerves built back up just because, you know, I watched this race for many years, and talking to everybody, it's about, you know, you got to respect this place every lap. Because I think as soon as you let your guard down a little bit, like “OK, I got this place,” that second will bite you.
Allmendinger realizes that without Penske, his racing career would be a struggle, that he would likely be bouncing around from one low-buck NASCAR operation to another.
Penske decided to give Allmendinger another chance after he made an error in judgment last year in NASCAR. And that second chance has brought him to the Indianapolis 500.
“For me to be a part of this organization, to be with Team Penske and be one of Roger's drivers, it's very special,” he said. “And I feel like the luckiest guy in the world, honestly, to have a second opportunity at it. It's as I told Roger, if he wants me here, I'm not going to think about it. I'm going to be here, no matter what it is. And he's taken care of me and I feel very special to be a part of his family, and to be here to be just called one of his drivers, whether it was a NASCAR driver or IndyCar driver, sports car driver, whatever it is, to be part of Roger's organization, for me it's the best thing in the world. So if that opportunity's there, I'm going to be here.
“I didn’t feel like Roger for any means had to call me and give me another chance. I put the work in and did everything I needed to do to get back into racing. I learned the work outside the race car in terms of priorities, but he didn’t have to do it and give me a second opportunity. I just feel fortunate to be part of his family.”