A.J. Allmendinger may not be the average Indianapolis 500 rookie, but then again the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing isn’t a normal Sunday drive.
After being a victim of the open wheel spilt, where Champ Car Series drivers didn’t get a shot at the famed race, Allmendinger finally gets a chance to earn the right to chug the traditional Winner’s Circle milk in the 97th Indianapolis 500 on May 26.
“Yeah, it’s kind of interesting, I guess I’m not the typical rookie,” he said.
“When I was in Champ Car, the biggest racetrack that I really raced on was Milwaukee. We did a couple of race in Vegas, but that was with big wings and the speed wasn’t that high, so I don’t even look at that race like it was something that I learned from.”
Although Allmendinger is no stranger to open wheel cars after racing them his entire career before switching to NASCAR full-time in 2007, being competitive in the Indy 500 will be a challenge for the former Champ car driver and 2003 Formula Atlantic champion.
Despite his experience, Allmendinger will lean on his Penske teammates Will Power and three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves as he tries to get up to speed at Indy.
“I have teammates that have been so helpful to me with Helio and Will, and obviously Helio’s record around there, it speaks for itself,” Allmendinger said.
“I feel like I’ve got a good supporting cast around me. For me mentally I’ve got to make sure I don’t go out there and try to just set the world on fire from day 1. That’s a place you can’t over push yourself: You’ve got to kind of let it lead into it.”
The California native will also have four-time Indianapolis 500 champion and Penske consultant Rick Mears available to offer advice. A three-time IndyCar champion, Mears retired from racing in 1992, a year after his final Indy 500 win.
Allmendinger may not be the only high-profile rookie in the field after 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kurt Busch tested an Andretti car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Thursday.
In what can only be described as a strange twist of fate, 31-year-old Allmendinger only got the chance to compete in this year’s Indy race after being fired by Roger Penske's NASCAR team after being caught using a banned substance last year.
Although Penske replaced Allmendinger in his NASCAR team, he offered the driver a few starts in IndyCar this year. In two of his starts this year with Penske, Allmendinger has run well and looked competitive, but circumstances have ruined his outings. He dropped out of contention after a poor pitstop in the April 7 race at Barber Motorsport Park in Alabama, crossing the line 19th. Two weeks later on the streets of Long Beach, he suffered a gearbox failure and retired. He was classified 23rd.
Allmendinger is also racing part time in NASCAR with Phoenix Racing, where he has made four starts in 2013 with a best finish of 11th.
Canadian racing fans might recall Allmendinger’s sensational run in 2006 after switching to the Forsythe Team following a falling out with the RuSport operation. The young driver responded with a trio of wins in his first three starts with his new team, including a coming out on top of spirited battle with teammate Paul Tracy, of Scarborough, Ont., to take the win on the streets of Toronto.
The trip of triumphs in 2006 made him the top candidate to dethrone then-reigning two-time Champ Car titlist Sébastien Bourdais, but a couple of poor finishes ruined his chances. Bourdais went on to win the title that year and the Newman/Haas driver added a fourth consecutive championship in the next.
Despite winning five of nine starts with Forsythe, talks to sign Allmendinger for the subsequent season broke down and he ended up missing the final race of the year in Mexico City after announcing that he’d be heading to stock cars in 2007.
As an Indy 500 rookie, the biggest challenge for Allmendinger will be trying to figure out how his car will run in traffic during the race. While Allmendinger’s teammates can help with the job in practice sessions which begin Saturday, it will be a tall order.
“He’ll probably qualify well because he’s in a good car and he’s no stranger to driving a car on an oval that’s a bit free and a bit skittish because that’s what you have to do in a stock car to be quick,” said two-time winner in 2013, James Hinchcliffe of Andretti Autosport.
“I think getting comfortable in the draft and in dirty air with the race craft takes time and unfortunately for him – even though we are there all month – the problem is that when we are in practice, basically until Carb Day, we are trying to stay away from everybody as much as we can. He is going to need a lot of cooperation from his team and his teammates to get a feel for the dirty air and where you can place the car.”
Carb Day, short for Carburetion Day, is the final practice session for the Indy 500 which is held on the Friday before the race. It got its name from the fact that many teams in the early days of the 500 used the practice time to find the optimum fuel-air mixture going through their carburetors for the race.
Allmendinger agreed with Hinchcliffe, saying that running with a couple of teammates in practice at the famed 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway is nowhere near the same as green flag racing with 33 cars on track.
Then again, his plan going into the month is that he won’t have to adjust in traffic.
“Hopefully we’re fast up front leading the race,” Allmendinger laughed.
“For me I think it’s about going out there and having the mindset of taking it step by step and I don’t have to be the fastest on the speed charts on day one. Rookies can come in and win the race, so that’s what I want to do.”
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