Editorial

One-on-one with AJ Allmendinger
 
by Mark Cipolloni

 August 14, 2006

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AJ Allmendinger
Bob Heathcote/AutoRacing1.com

Friday in Denver, Colorado I caught up with American Champ Car driver AJ Allmendinger with the Forsythe Championship Racing team.  As the only American and the hottest driver in Champ Car right now, Allmendinger has seen his career make a 180-degree turn when he switched from RuSPORT to Forsythe six races ago.  Since then he has won four of six races and moved to 2nd in the point standings.

AJ talks about the reversal of his career fortunes, the new Champ Car, teammate Paul Tracy, the new love in his life, and much more.

MARK CIPOLLONI:  A.J. thanks for taking the time to meet today.

A.J. ALLMENDINGER: My pleasure Mark.

Q. You've recently won three races in a row, and have really turned your career around almost overnight. Was there a point where you began to doubt yourself ?

A.J. ALLMENDINGER: I think for sure that when you struggle and my expectations for myself are always to go out there and win, and it's not happening, you get close, then you kind of fall behind. It's just kind of upwards and downwards, you definitely start to doubt if you can do it, you know, what's going wrong, just a lot of things that are happening, trying to figure it out.

You know, it was a difficult time over the last year, year and a half for me.

Q. How much pressure did you put on yourself?

A.J. ALLMENDINGER: Oh, all the pressure from the world comes from myself. Obviously, I want to win for the guys working on my car, sponsors like Red Bull and people like that. But I ultimately do this because I want to win. It's for myself, and that's what I take the pride from. That's, you know, where my happiness in my career comes from.

Q. You and Justin Wilson, your former teammate at RuSPORT, seem to have a great relationship. Is that true? Is it still continuing?

A.J. ALLMENDINGER: Oh, yeah, for sure. I mean, I think Justin and I, we had a great relationship. We still do. We had one as teammates. Now we just have one as friends.

I think he was genuinely happy for me when I won. I was the same for him in Edmonton. He's an amazing driver. He did a lot for me in my career to really learn from and understand somebody with his wealth of experience, and he never hid anything to try to keep me down.

But really what it comes down to is I respect him most because there was no secrets about how much I was struggling at times and how frustrated I was. I think any other teammate, a lot of people, would have used that against me because ultimately we're compared to our teammates. That's who you're always compared to. That's the nature of the beast.

He could have easily just really put the knife in me and turned it and kept turning it until I couldn't take it any more. But he never said a word about it. We could go out and hang out after a race at home, since we live near each other. We'd never say a word about it.

I don't know many people that would have done that. I don't know if I would have been that good about it. But he was. He more than anything tried to help me instead of trying to use it against me. That's really where my respect comes from and just, you know, a lot of thanks to him for that.

Q. He seems like a real great guy. How is your relationship with your new teammate, Paul Tracy?

A.J. ALLMENDINGER: We're fine now. I think it was exciting for me to join Forsythe because, you know, I got to be on a team with Justin which had a wealth of experience internationally, kind of in a lot of different open-wheel race cars. And he had a completely different personality and completely different driving style than me. So I was able to learn from that.

I've been able to come here to Forsythe where Paul and I have the same personality, really close to the same driving style. I think that was a big key to my success early on in the first few races because I was able to jump right in the car and it was pretty good from the start. A lot of it was his setups that the whole Forsythe team had kind of engineered around him. It's great.

I think we work well together to try to push each other. Heck, I've got the guy left-foot braking for the first time in 16 years. So it's good.

Q. What's been the difference? I mean, has it been because the setups are the same as your teammate now that you've been able to go from struggling to win to now winning and being at the front of the grid every race?

A.J. ALLMENDINGER: I mean, I think for sure a lot of it is the car setup. It's nice for my driving style. I mean, I think over at RuSPORT, Justin -- I think him and his engineers have found a good car for him. I struggled to try to do that. We went back and forth. But for the most part it worked a lot better for him.

So I was definitely able to come here and come to a car that was really suited to my driving style, allowed me to drive the car I wanted to and attack instead of trying to drive the way the car wanted me to.

But really the other biggest thing is just team chemistry. You know, this team is a lot like my personality, and that is just here to have fun, really enjoy it. Neil Micklewright said it the best when I showed up. He said, A.J. we're here to win, but we're also not curing cancer, so let's have fun while we're doing this. I think we forget that so many times because we are so focused on winning and that's our ultimate goal, that it is better than any nine-to-five job out there, and there are very few people that get to do this as a career and make a living doing it, so we should have fun doing it.

I lost that. I honestly lost that over the last year and a half. I didn't want to come to the racetrack any more. I didn't want to be in the race car. I was able to come back to this team and they have that personality where we're joking, laughing. I think everybody sees that when we're on pit lane. We're just kind of fumbling around with each other and just having fun.

That honestly has probably been the biggest key. Because when you're able to get in the race car and have fun again, it just seems to make everything so much easier.

Q. You're the only American in Champ Car right now. A lot of people say we need more Americans. How do you feel about that?

A.J. ALLMENDINGER: Oh, we for sure need more Americans. I mean, it's an American-based series. I think some of the exciting things about Champ Car, some of the best drivers throughout the world come over and that's why it's so competitive and we enjoy it. But you do need more than one American in the series to make it grow here.

I think you see guys like Graham Rahal, Jonathan Bomarito, Robby Pecorari won this year in the Atlantics, there are young Americans in the next year or next couple of years will be in the series. So the way I look at it, if I have to maintain the American flag and really have it on my shoulders from the American people to go out there and do the job, I'm willing to do that as long as it takes.

But ultimately for the series, there does need to be more Americans in it.

Q. What is your favorite racetrack?

A.J. ALLMENDINGER: Any one that I win at. Right now Portland, Cleveland and Toronto.

No, I really enjoy Cleveland because of the wide-open nature of the circuit. Edmonton is fun. I've always loved Montréal. I miss Laguna Seca. Too bad that the race, it died there. And I love those kind of racetracks, those fast-flowing, just hanging out.

Q. A lot of drivers say they like Road America, too.

A.J. ALLMENDINGER: I really don't like Road America. Honestly. I struggle there. Maybe we go there this year and I win, my opinion will change. But I've always struggled there in anything that I've driven. It's still one of my toughest tracks.

But I do, I love the street course races. I love a lot of the races. But just really those tracks that allow you to open it up. They're cool.

But, you know, I really enjoy races that have a good atmosphere, a place like a Denver, a Toronto, Edmonton, because it was so big, those places, Long Beach. I love that. Besides driving the racetrack, that's kind of my nature of what I love about the races.

Q. With the split, not able to run Indy, do you kind of regret that? Do you wish you'd get a shot?

A.J. ALLMENDINGER: No, because I really -- for me, Indy is not that big of a deal. My opinion might change if I was sitting on the grid there and all the prerace activities are going on and I'm, you know, starting the Indy 500. My opinion might change. But right now, my really -- I have no kind of just huge want to go and run the race.

Q. So as far as a merger goes, you kind of don't care or you wish there was one?

A.J. ALLMENDINGER: No, the merger needs to happen. There's no doubt the merger needs to happen. And if Indy is a part of the schedule when the merger happens, which it would be, then great, I'm all for it. But just kind of as to go as a one-off race, not having a merger, I'm not really into it.

Q. How do you feel about the ovals that they run over there in the IRL? If there's a merger, do you like ovals or not like ovals?

A.J. ALLMENDINGER: I do not like an oval in an open-wheel race car. It honestly scares the living hell out of me, whether it's Milwaukee, Las Vegas, Indy. When they run places like Texas, no. No, there's no want for me to go do that.

Q. A lot of drivers say that. You had a chance to see the new car in San Jose two weeks ago. What is your impression of it?

A.J. ALLMENDINGER: I think it's great. Obviously until you get it out on the racetrack, you don't know the way it handles, if all those things they've done to make better traffic and cleaner racing like that will work. But you can really see they put a lot of detail into it, they put a lot of effort into it. It wasn't just something that they threw together to get a new car out there and get some new excitement in the series.

I really enjoyed it. I think the panel shifts are going to be interesting to learn because for how many years now you're so used to taking your hand off the wheel and grabbing a gear, blipping, stuff like that. It's going to be exciting. I'm really enthused to go get in the new car and hopefully, you know, that brings more teams and drivers to the series and we have a great year next year.

Q. Speaking of new teams, there's rumors, actually reports, that Paul Stoddart is looking at coming over, guys like Christian Klien might be coming over. Is that good for the series?

A.J. ALLMENDINGER: For sure. I think if you can get a good mix of young Americans like a Graham, like a Jonathan Bomarito, get some of the young Europeans over there like Klien and get Stoddart interested in coming over here, any time you get new interest over in Europe, just anyplace you get new interest, it's great for the series.

I think Christian, everybody's watched him in F1. I think honestly he's done a relatively good job. I think he'd be quick in a Champ Car.

All we want is the best drivers in the world, the fastest drivers in the world to come over and race because ultimately you want to race against the best drivers so when you beat them, you can say you're one of the guys.

Q. There's been some talk of maybe doing some standing starts with this new car. How do you feel about that?

A.J. ALLMENDINGER: Honestly, I don't know. Some of these courses, there's no way to do it. I mean, it's so tight, somebody stalls the car, it's a massacre. I think, you know, the Atlantics, I think there's been just as many wrecks doing a standing start as there would be doing a rolling.

So standing starts, I really am kind of neutral on it. If we don't do them, then it doesn't -- I'm not sad about it. If we do them, you know, it's just something new to learn.

Q. You signed a contract with Forsythe. Can you talk about future years? Are you going to be here next year, too, or you don't know yet?

A.J. ALLMENDINGER: Don't know. Honestly, I can't speak about it because I don't know. Really the way I looked at it was I wanted to just get through the rest of this year. I mean, it's been such a hectic year for me. Really see if we gelled well with the team. And I think we have.

Over the next few months, when it comes to probably late September, October, around there, that's when we start figuring out if we want to be back together.

I'll tell you right now, though, I've just enjoyed every moment that I've been with this team. And that's something that I really enjoy and have been thankful for them to allow me to come in here and be so comfortable and be myself and be happy.

So, yeah, I mean, I would definitely -- they're on the top of the list probably to come back here to Champ Car and run with.

Q. You have a new love in your life, a beautiful fiancée Lynn. Winning races now. Is everything right in the world for A.J. Allmendinger?

A.J. ALLMENDINGER: It's right, but it's hectic right now. Wow, it's a crazy year, honestly. I haven't felt like that I've ever had time to rest since I guess I was let go.

So there's a lot of happiness in life and there's also a lot of stress. But I wouldn't have it any other way honestly. I wouldn't change it. I wouldn't change the way I got let go, the way Forsythe called me, win the races, get engaged all through that time. It's something that I'll always remember the rest of my life. I know it was the best thing in my life.

She makes me so happy off the racetrack. You know, for me with her, she's my dream come true. It's nice to have that. I think you ask anybody. I mean, it's funny, because when I was 21, I was asked about personal life towards racing. I said, doesn't matter. I said, there's racing and then there's your personal life. Those don't mix.

You get older, you realize they do mix because if you're not happy racing, your personal life's not good, nothing's good. You can leave your house every day and you're happy because you're married and you have a loving wife, you're getting to that point, you show up at the racetrack, you're going to be a happy person. It's going to make a difference.

I've learned that over the last couple years.

Q. A.J., thank you very much for your time. Been nice talking with you. Good luck this weekend. Keep it off the walls.

A.J. ALLMENDINGER: For sure.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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