The Frontstretch: A.J. Allmendinger: Earning His Stripes After Rough Transition To NASCAR by Tony Lumbis -- Wednesday June 20, 2007

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A.J. Allmendinger: Earning His Stripes After Rough Transition To NASCAR

Beyond The Cockpit : Frontstretch Driver Q & A · Tony Lumbis · Wednesday June 20, 2007

 

A.J. Allmendinger honed his racing skills in the cockpit of open wheel cars, winning Championships in both the Barber Dodge Pro Series and the Toyota Atlantic Series before joining the Champ Car World Series in 2004. After three seasons, the former Champ Car Rookie of the Year decided it was time to try out a car with a roof and fenders, inking a multi-year deal to drive the Team Red Bull No. 84 Toyota Camry in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series.

That decision has led to Allmendinger having his share of ups and downs in 2007, but he seems to have found his niche racing the Car of Tomorrow. After missing seven of the first nine races this season, Allmendinger is on a roll, qualifying for the last six consecutive Nextel Cup events. Fifteen races into the season, Allmendinger is fifth in the Rookie of The Year standings, trailing the leading rookie, Juan Pablo Montoya, by 87 points as they battle for top rookie honors.

Our Tony Lumbis sat down with Allmendinger before the Pocono race this June and talked with him about leaving the open wheel ranks to race in NASCAR, the Memorial Day Double, his golf game, and plenty of other topics in this week’s edition of Beyond The Cockpit.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: Your background came in open wheel racing, driving cars in the Formula Dodge National Championship and the Toyota Atlantic Series. You even had a chance to compete Red Bull's F1 driver search. Last year, all your efforts appeared to have paid off, winning five races in CART. You would've been a favorite to win the championship this year, yet, not only do you decide to leave for NASCAR, but you sign with an unproven team and manufacturer. What factors contributed to such a career-altering decision?

A.J. Allmendinger: Honestly, probably just the opportunity in NASCAR and, obviously, the split in the series between IRL and Champ Car – there's a lot of doubt and uncertainty (there). When I did the Truck races last year, I really enjoyed them. Obviously, it's a completely different type of racing, but it's just as exciting and it's competitive. With my relationship with Red Bull throughout the years, I thought it was a great chance to make a move and to be able to join them as a team. Toyota has obviously been successful in a lot of realms of racing, and their Trucks have been dominant over the last couple of years. So, I knew it was going to take time in the beginning, but I look at it as one of the opportunities that if I didn't take it now, I would probably regret it, whether I won races or not in Champ Car. I just had to jump at it… and I'm happy.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: Has it been what you expected so far?

A.J. Allmendinger: It's been difficult – a lot more difficult than I expected. I didn't expect to be running in the Top 10 right away or win races, but I think (the way things have gone) – it’s just been a shock to everybody. You have (established) guys like Scott Riggs and Dave Blaney, they're trying to fight (their way) in and they're not getting in (the races) every weekend. So, just trying to get in the races and the way the races play out, it's been a lot more difficult than I expected. The toughest challenge has probably been just trying to learn how to drive the car. I felt like I took to the Trucks pretty quickly, (although) they're a different type of driving style than the Cup cars. They're another beast.

Honestly, probably the first three or four races of the season, I
was (just) along for the ride. I was letting the car drive me and just trying to figure out how we were going to (make the race). But the last month or two, I've been really feeling a lot more comfortable. It's been a good challenge so far.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: You mentioned the last month or two that you've been more comfortable. Coming into Pocono, you've qualified for the past four consecutive races, while the No. 83 has qualified for the past three. Do you feel like the team is starting to turn the corner and gain some momentum? How would you assess the entire season so far?

A.J. Allmendinger: We're definitely getting better. I think we really made a lot of progress right before Richmond. We went to Iowa and tested to figure out some of the things about the CoT. The regular car, we ran a lot of that in the beginning of the season when I really wasn't feeling that comfortable in the car. That goes back to my last point, not feeling comfortable and not having a lot of laps is kind of the reason why we weren't making those races. Brian was quick when he made the races earlier in the year.

We're getting better, (although) it's still going to be tough as can be every weekend to make the races. From here on out, if we make the rest of the races, (that's) fantastic; (but) if we miss a few, it won't surprise me, either, because it's tough for everybody. I'd like to run a little better when we get in the races, but that just comes with time. You make more races, you run more laps, and you're just going to get better.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: You spoke about Brian Vickers when assessing the season. How has the communication been between the two of you as teammates?

A.J. Allmendinger: It's been good. I think we'd both probably like more, but these weekends get so hectic (limiting our time). We don't get as much time as we'd probably like to talk to each other. But he's the type of guy that you can go up to and ask him (something) when you find the chance, and he'll answer you straightforward.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: When you don't get a chance to speak to Brian, and there have actually been some races where you have qualified and he hasn't, are there been other drivers that you have felt comfortable reaching out to?

A.J. Allmendinger: That's probably been one of the biggest things (about Nextel Cup); the whole paddock is nice, which is different from open wheel racing. It's so cutthroat over there with the state of where it is. There are not many rides that are paying their drivers to go drive in the open wheel series. It’s cutthroat, and you'll lie through your teeth to your teammate and everybody else around you to make them look as bad as they can and to make yourself look better, just because that's the nature of it. There's not a lot of rides. Here (in NASCAR), I think you're always still worried about your ride, but it's a little more secure. The bigger names that know they're established – that know they're going to have a ride – reach out. You know, they'll be the first ones to wreck you when you get in their way on the first lap on the racetrack, but they'll still tell you (what you need to know). I mean, I was walking back from the rookie meeting (today) and Ryan Newman came up to me and talked to me about the track. Kyle Petty has been a great guy.

You can find help wherever you want to, basically. They'll teach you about being a rookie, and you'll have to live through it…but pretty much everybody has got to live through that.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: A few weeks ago, race fans were treated to one of the biggest motorsports days of the year, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. You have already competed in one part of the day's tripleheader, the Coca-Cola 600. As someone with an open wheel background, do you have the desire to someday compete in one of the day's other two events: The Indianapolis 500 or The Grand Prix of Monte Carlo?

A.J. Allmendinger: The 500, not so much. Open wheel race cars running on ovals scare the living daylights out of me. The couple we did in Champ car were good enough for me. (But) I love road racing, and Monaco to me would be pretty sweet to be able to go run, especially in a good car to go run up front. If you gave me my choice, I'd probably go and attempt Monaco.

(But) it's a cool thing, being a part of the 600 and all of the prestige that (surrounds) it. That was pretty cool to be a part of, and is something that hopefully I'll get to experience more of.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: Hopefully, next time you won't have Jeff Gordon landing on your hood.

A.J. Allmendinger: Yeah, that was scary! We could've done without that. Ya know, hopefully we're getting all the bad luck out of the way and I'm learning all this now. That's part of racing, and it wasn't Jeff Gordon's fault and it wasn't Tony Raines's fault, it was a tough racetrack with tough circumstances.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: After RuSPORT let you go, you signed with the Forsythe Championship Race team and won your first race out. What do you think attributed to the immediate success with the new team? Did it have anything to do with being newly engaged and knowing you would have a wife to support?

A.J. Allmendinger: Yeah, exactly.

A.J.'s wife Lynne chimes in from the background: He wasn't supporting me anymore.

A.J. Allmendinger: Yeah, that's true, I was jobless.

(Seriously), what came out of that is that I finally had a good car to drive. It was a struggle at RuSport, just the whole situation over there was a struggle. I always said, you give me the right car and I'm going to be able to go out there and do it. And as soon as I get one, I'm going to get a lot (of wins) and that's just what happened. I got in with Forsythe, (where) the team atmosphere was a ton better than at RuSport. My crew guys at RuSport were great, but above that, it wasn't right. It wasn't working well. When I got in there (Forsythe), the guys were loose — they were happy to have me. Michael Cannon was more my type of engineer – laid back. Everything clicked. We had a good car and (we) gained momentum. Confidence as a race car driver, you live and die by it. When you have all the confidence in the world and you're winning, there is nothing that's going to stop you. You sit in that car and it just feels like magic. You can do it with your eyes closed and it just comes easy. Same thing when you're struggling – it’s like the world is crashing down on you. Once (the) confidence was there, we just rolled.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: You've never driven with your eyes closed, right?

A.J. Allmendinger: No, I do that a lot. Its scary out there, ya know. I wouldn't want to do that with my eyes open for God's sake. Most of my qualifying laps are usually eyes closed; Bristol, for sure.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: You were a part of Red Bull's F1 driver search that ultimately chose Scott Speed. Do you ever speak to Scott about his experiences in F1 so far?

A.J. Allmendinger: No, the funniest thing was that we were probably the biggest CART rivals you could ever imagine. I mean, we hated each other. We weren't the best friends off the race track, but I do respect what he has been able to do. I think he is doing a good job and probably took too much heat last year for his first year and a rookie team like that. It was great to see, I was happy to see that it worked because I dropped out right away because I had signed the Toyota Atlantic deal with RuSport at that time. I had felt like I had made a good name for myself in the States, and ultimately, I had always said that if I do the job in Champ Car and F1 was my aspiration, ya know, the champion usually always has the opportunity to go to F1 and at least test it. So I thought I wasn't shutting the door on F1 at that point. To finally go through and (see) the program work and (watch) Scott make it, I think it was good for him, good for the U.S., and it was really good for Red Bull to show that it wasn't another one of those fly-by-night programs where it's a lot of hype, you get some recognition for it and then all of a sudden, it closes down.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: In addition to being a part of Red Bull's competitive program, I heard you get to go to a lot of cool events as well.

A.J. Allmendinger: Yeah, on my weekend off in July, they're making me go to the Motor G.P. race in Laguna (Seca). I'm really mad about it, disappointed (smiles). No, its cool. It's just cool to be a part of it. That was one of the bigger reasons for coming to NASCAR and being a part of Red Bull, because I knew what they were all about and it wasn't just going to be your typical race team. There was going to be a lot of cool stuff to get to go do. A lot of their media obligations are more fun then you'd ever have. It's fun to be a part of it throughout racing and as a Red Bull athlete.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: You were one of the most successful Americans in Champ Car in recent history. What do you think needs to be done, or is being done, by Team Red Bull to generate the same American success in F1?

A.J. Allmendinger: Well, anywhere you go, (it comes down to) good equipment. The best driver can't take bad equipment and go win with it. The best drivers are the ones who can take a 30th place car and finish 20th with it. The F1 program is just the same as our NASCAR programs – the more experience, the better the equipment, the more you learn. It’s just going to be better and better, and that's (true) with anything. It's nothing different that they're doing, it's just experience and getting the notes. Guys like Scott, guys like me, (it all comes down to) the more you drive, the more you learn, the better you get.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: One of your favorite hobbies is mini golf, where you pretty much said that you would take on the competition at any course at any time, so you must be really good. I've been out golfing a few times this year and my putting game is absolutely killing me. What advice would you give a guy in my position who couldn't putt to save his life?

A.J. Allmendinger: It's the same as race car driving, close your eyes. Just close your eyes and swing. I need to practice though, I haven't played since January when I got my butt whipped by my crew chief. He put it on me pretty good. So it was embarrassing. Yeah, I love mini golf, anything I can be competitive in.

I suck at real golf. I stopped trying to take that up and just focused (more) on mini golf instead. I was getting too many clubs stuck in the trees when I'd throw them. By the end, I just threw the bag in the lake after that. So with mini golf, I stay a little more calm. I find when you throw the club, the next hole is really close, so you can go find it and grab it and pick it right up. That clown's mouth is a pain in the butt, it’s just laughing (at you).

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch.com: Last month you were asked if racing at Darlington can compare to anything you have done in your career. Your response was "jumping off a cliff". Did you actually jump off a cliff at some point in your lifetime?

A.J. Allmendinger: That's me feeling like I want to jump off cliffs. I've watched many races at Darlington, so it wasn't all new to me. They told me that it was slippery and how close you run to the wall; what they didn't tell me was how bumpy it was. Literally, by the time that race ended — and (for) that whole next week – my jaw hurt. I couldn't chew anything. It (was) just so bumpy. I won't lie, (I'm a) road racing guy, and not running many ovals, I used to think, ‘It’s an oval. They're all the same. How hard can it be?’ (However, the) NASCAR tracks we go to, they're harder than most road courses I've been to. Like (Pocono), I'm just wondering what the heck I'm doing around it.

There's just so many nuisances; it’s not easy to get these things around a race track as it is, but some of the ones that they get on, it’s just madness. That's what it is…it’s craziness.

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Travis Rassat
06/21/2007 06:39 AM
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That was a great interview! I’ve been very excited about A.J.‘s move to NASCAR and to see what he can do, especially with a brand new team and brand new manufacturer in the series.

I think a lot of people – especially those who aren’t familiar with Champ Car and haven’t seen A.J. drive – wrote A.J. off way too soon. At least, that’s the perception I got from the media. As the team matures and A.J. becomes more comfortable in the cars, I think he will be a force to be reckoned with. We might get a chance to see a preview of what’s to come this weekend at Sonoma.

Spencer Mims
06/21/2007 09:53 AM
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Thanks for the terrific interview. I think the lack of exposure given to CART and open wheel in general has people wandering around with AJ totally off their radar screens. For those who enjoy fantasy racing, that could prove to be a terrible mistake, as Allmendinger could make some serious noise at Infineon, provided he qualifies the car. Having seen him race many times in the past, I have no doubts about his talent.

falcon325
06/21/2007 10:28 AM
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Good one, Tony. AJ’s comments about how bumpy Darlington was were very interesting. Sometimes, these guys make it look so easy, I don’t think we fans really appreciate how hard it is to run at high speeds on a slippery, bumpy track with 42 of your closest friends.