Allmendinger taking small steps in IndyCar debut
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — AJ Allmendinger walked to the dais after his first full day of IndyCar practice and accidentally knocked over a chair.
“I wrecked it,” he quipped. “At least it wasn’t the car.”
Everything is a small victory for Allmendinger in this part-time return to open-wheel racing. He’s been given a second chance by Roger Penske after the team owner was forced last summer to fire Allmendinger from his NASCAR organization because of a failed random drug test.
Only Penske’s opportunity for Allmendinger is in the IndyCar Series, where Allmendinger will make his debut Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park alongside Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power, the only two winners in the series’ three previous visits to Barber.
It’s a warm-up for next month’s Indianapolis 500 because it’s been more than six years since Allmendinger, a five-time winner in his final season in Champ Car in 2006, has driven an open-wheel car competitively. The nerves definitely set in when he arrived Friday at the picturesque 17-turn, 2.38-mile permanent road course.
“I thought I was going to throw up,” he said.
Allmendinger was then interrupted by Castroneves, his Brazilian teammate, “What was the word you used?” he asked.
“Queasy?” Allmendinger replied.
“Yeah, queasy. I learned a new word,” Castroneves said.
But Allmendinger said there’s a reason for the nerves.
“There’s realistic expectations that I hold for myself, then there’s expectations that I hope,” he said. “Yes, I’d love to go out there and win the race, but realistically, that is a lofty goal to try to have. But at the same time, I don’t want to waste Roger’s time. I don’t want to waste (sponsor) Izod’s time, or anyone who is working on this race car. Or, Helio and Will’s time trying to help me out.
“I want to go out there and at least be competitive and be right in the fold of it. As that happens, kind of see how the races play out and get used to that. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous.”
Allmendinger ended up OK by the end of the day. He finished eighth on the final speed chart, getting around the course in 1 minute, 8.9119 seconds. Castroneves led the day at 1:08.5540.
For Allmendinger, it’s all about getting used to the feel of the car and the pace of the weekend. Neither is coming easy.
“After seven years I kind of hoped it was kind of like riding a bike, and coming back I would get on it and learn how to do it again,” he said. “Kinda of feels like a unicycle right now. I’m still like hanging on and trying to figure out what I am doing out there. It’s not like seven years ago where it all comes naturally. It is a lot of work.”
He’s also stymied by the difference in a track weekend schedule between NASCAR and IndyCar.
In NASCAR, especially the Sprint Cup Series, the teams get considerable track time all weekend to prepare for the race. IndyCar had just 105 minutes of practice over two sessions Friday and another 30 minutes on Saturday morning before qualifying.
“It surprised me when I saw the schedule just how little time that you get once you get here,” he said. “It’s so funny, on the Cup side of it, you have a set day of it. Friday you work on qualifying. Saturday you work on race setup and Sunday you go race. Here, obviously you are working on speed, but there isn’t a lot of time to work on race setup. So I think it is just the process of going through the weekend, figuring out how the weekend goes and how we use our tires, what we are working on.
“So far, I felt like the first day was good.”