AJ Allmendinger says he’s been taking it a step at a time during his return to open-wheel racing and debut at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, trying to get back to where it all “just feels natural.”
"Every day when I get to the track and take my first laps on the race track I’m still kind of nervous,” Allmendinger said last week. “Just kind of feeling it out. It’s a place you really have to respect every lap, because that moment you let your guard down just a little bit and you feel comfortable is the moment that it will bite you. I’m just trying to keep that in mind and try to work up to it.”
Allmendinger came up through karting and lower open-wheel formulas including Atlantics and into the Champ Car World Series in 2004. He spent three years in Champ Car, finally breaking through with five wins and seven podiums before leaving in 2006 for a NASCAR ride.
“Every time I moved up to the next level (in open-wheel racing) my car was just a bigger race car with more horsepower, but it was still the same technique; it really felt the same,” Allmendinger said. “So I really just got used to the extra horsepower. Then I went to NASCAR and it was a different world. It was a car I had never driven. It was a car that didn’t make sense to me. When I first drove it, it took a couple of years to really get comfortable in it and really just understand what I was supposed to feel and that was tough. Because everything I felt like just came so naturally to me throughout my career and that didn’t. That was tough to get used to.”
When Allmendinger agreed to run a few races for Roger Penske this year in IndyCar, he said he again started through an adjustment period.
“Coming back to open wheel racing, it’s almost the same feeling, like I have to start over again. I knew it would be tough, but I thought ‘OK I’ll get it under me and everything will feel natural to me again and I’ll be good to go.’ Well it’s not that easy. It’s taken a while to get used to it, especially on a big oval here at Indy and when I tested in Texas. I didn’t have a lot of oval experience in an Indy Car. My only experience was at Milwaukee when I raced Champ Car.
“For me it was a big deal because I have to allow myself to feel that speed. It’s way different than feeling the speed in a stock car around a place like that so it’s hard, and the IndyCar series, since they merged back together, the talent they have in the field … there’s no weaknesses. From top to bottom, from one through 26, the cars are so close and the drivers are so close you really got to get everything out of the car you can to be up front, so it’s been a difficult challenge. It’s a challenge that I enjoy, but it’s a tough challenge.”
Getting everything out of the car is also a critical to success, Allmendinger said, perhaps more so than in some higher-horsepower cars. Allmendinger said his last open-wheel car, a Champ Car Lola, had about 75 more horsepower than the current IndyCar.
“There’s more weight in the back of the (DW12) so the back of the car tends to be loose when you get down into the corners,” said Allmendinger. “But the biggest thing is there’s a little less horsepower and to get a lap time out of the car you just got to wring everything you can out of it. You gotta drive it to the ragged edge and if you leave 1% out there, it’s like a half second. And to me, that’s what’s blowing my mind. To go out there and guys like Will (Power) and Helio (Castroneves) are so good about being able to nail that lap in qualifying and put all the corners together and that’s what you gotta do to be able to go to the next group (in road and street qualifying).”
Allmendinger said what he’s enjoyed most about returning to open-wheel racing is how welcoming Team Penske and his teammates, Power and Castroneves, have been. “Even though I’m not full-time, when I show up, I don’t feel like the third car on the team. I have as good of a chance to win — I have the same equipment, I have great people on my race car to go out there and win.”
Likewise, Allmendinger anticipates being introduced on race day as a Team Penske driver will be a memorable moment. As for fantasizing about winning the Indianapolis 500, Allmendinger says he doesn’t ever let his mind wander to the topic.
“No. Nope. Not even ... I will not allow myself to even think that at all,” Allmendinger said. “I’m kind of taking it in the moment focusing on each time I am on the race track I will not allow myself to think ahead and what happens if I would win the race. You just can’t do that. There are so many things that have to happen correctly to even have a chance to win the race. I think it’s one of those things you just let the moment take over when it does happen. You can’t plan for it.”
While winning is always the ultimate goal, Allmendinger said his focus is on minimizing any driver errors. Allmendinger wants to be able to say after the race “I put myself in the best position I could. That’s all I can do, that’s all I can control, and be satisfied with that. If it’s meant to be and the racing gods want me to win, then great. But I just want to minimize my mistakes and give myself best opportunity I can. If I can do that, then I can go home and be happy.”
Getting Tips for Driving of a Different Sort
Fans are invited to an event at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday in the plaza at IMS where IZOD driver Allmendinger and Spencer Levin, PGA Tour player and IZOD Team golfer, will experience each other’s worlds. Allmendinger and Levin will participate in the ‘Team IZOD Challenge.’ The duo will take turns driving a few laps in the Chevrolet Corvette Pace Car then go head-to-head in a racing and golf competition that will test the athletes in one another’s disciplines as they attempt to secure prizes for fans.
“It’s going to be a fun thing,” said Allmendiner. “Spencer is going to show me some golf shots I’m going to show him how to drive a race car.”
Allmendinger said golfing is one of his off-track passions, even though he admits his game could improve. “In my mind I think I’m a scratch golfer, but when I swing, I’m not. I’m about a 15 handicap. I really enjoy the game. I love going out with buddies and spending four hours on a golf course having a good time. I love watching golf it’s been fun being with IZOD. I’m looking forward to that Tuesday. It’s going to be a good time.”