A.J. Allmendinger is a rookie starting fifth in tomorrow’s Indianapolis 500. A rookie at Indianapolis in an IZOD Indy Car, yes, but not a rookie in an open-wheel car.
Many forget the trail that Allmendinger blazed in the CHAMP Car series. Five wins racing in the series ultimately opened the door for Allmendinger to enter the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and while winning multiple races in CHAMP Car complimented a third place finish in the 2009 Daytona 500, Allmendinger has always wanted one thing: Indianapolis in May.
“I wanted to come to Indy every year because It’s still the biggest race in the world … CHAMP Car wouldn’t race on Memorial Day weekend because we knew we wouldn’t be recognized so it was tough to sit there and watch it and always wonder what it was like to be there and be a part of it. To know you’re racing the same cars just not at Indy it was rough.”
Between 1995 and 2004, there were two open-wheel circuits which contributed to the dissolving interest in open wheel racing. While NASCAR was emerging as one of the most popular sports in the world, open-wheel racing and all that came with it — including the Indianapolis 500 — was struggling to stay relevant.
Having been in a driver’s seat in CHAMP Car, NASCAR and now an Indy Car, the nine-year debacle that hurt open-wheel racing is even more frustrating from a driver’s hindsight.
“Looking back I don’t think there was anybody there that didn’t want it back together but unfortunately when you have people with ego’s, money, pride and stupidity it was killing both series … That’s why NASCAR got so popular. Open-wheel is slowly trying to come back but it’s not where it should be and deserves to be.”
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway recently removed some seats due to lower ticket sales. Indy isn’t the only place, though. Racing in general struggles to fill the seats with spectators. However, the month of May is not what it used to be before the 1995 split, as there were only 34 entries in this year’s Indianapolis 500.
While the Indianapolis 500 is still the most historic and most revered race in the world, the Daytona 500 is considered to be the “Super Bowl of NASCAR.”
Come Sunday, Allmendinger will have experienced both.
“It took me two years to make the Daytona 500 so to finally be introduced as one of the drivers was pretty cool but Indy is Indy, 97 times this race has been run. I like the history of racing, I love and I respect the history … I know what this place has meant from where it started, where it got to when it went down and where it’s trying to come back to. I think Daytona is big, believe me I’d love to win the race and it would mean more to my career than ever but this place is still, to me, the biggest race in the world.”
It’s overwhelming when you think about it. Walking out of gasoline alley and onto pit lane where so many have stood before you at the greatest track in the world, finding a moment to soak it all in is hard.
“It’s a constant mind struggle because I want to take it all in and try to have fun with it but I put a lot of pressure on myself because I want to do well. That first day I was stress eating and pacing but it was pretty cool to roll down the back straight the first time like I’m at Indy in an Indy car but especially in a roger Penske car—this is pretty cool.”
For Allmendinger, it must be very cool indeed. A failed drug test in 2012 resulted in his suspension for testing positive for Adderall after unknowingly taking it. He was released from his Penske Racing NASCAR contract, but, in late 2012, that same team gave him a second chance in an Indy Car.
“I think he genuinely cares about me. It’s really confidence building to think that he hired me to go out there and win. But as a person I think he genuinely cares. He is really open with his drivers. He told me once you sign with the family you’re in with the family as long as u want to be. That’s easy to say and I gave him no reason to keep that saying but its true and that means more to me than driving his race car does.”