AJ Allmendinger met with the media at Barber Motorsports Park ahead of this week's IndyCar Open test at the Alabama road course, to compare his No. 2 IZOD Dallara for Chevrolet with his NASCAR experiences, among other topics.
HOW DIFFERENT IS THIS CAR FROM THE LAST INDYCAR THAT YOU DROVE IN TERMS OF POWER AND DOWNFORCE?
“Well, it's a lot different than what I've been driving for the last seven years, I can tell you that. After I drove it at Sebring I was like, ‘Maybe it will all come back natural to me.' It felt like I was riding a unicycle. I almost forget what it feels like to drive a Champ car -- it's been so long.
The cars, they're definitely fun to drive. They have a ton of grip. I think the biggest thing for me is just the braking force of these cars and just everything in general. The G-force, trying to get used to that again. Stock car racing, training, you're working on just that mental aspect of being in a car for four hours in the heat, especially during the summer and that wearing on you and being able to be strong enough for that. There's a not a lot of racetracks physically where you get worn out, at least for me. Bristol maybe a little bit, Dover, but physically overall you're not just drained after a race. In IndyCar, obviously, it's physically demanding. I think for me, that's the biggest thing is trying to get back into that and that kind of mentality of how to train for that and just to get used to that in general again.
The car overall, once I got up to speed with it, it felt good. The biggest thing is it felt a little heavier in the back so when the thing kind of starts to sway you get in the corner and it gets loose -- it almost feels like a little bit of a pendulum kind of swinging behind you. That was the biggest thing that I noticed.”
IS IT DIFFICULT TO GO BETWEEN THE STOCK CAR TO THE INDY CAR AND EVEN SPORTS CAR RACING?
“I was a little nervous getting back in the Cup car at Phoenix because I hadn't driven one of the new cars and I hadn't been in a stock car for over four months. Phoenix, obviously being a short track, it's not as critical to get up to speed, you kind of ease your way into it. I kind of got up to speed pretty quick. I think it's going to be more of a transition getting back to the Indy car every time than going from the Indy car back to the stock car. That's what makes it fun. That's what makes being a part of this just a challenge for me, because I'm challenging myself every week just to adapt to something new. If I didn't think I could do it, I wouldn't be here.
I'm excited about that and those chances to adapt back and forth. There's not a lot of drivers out there that can get to say that they've raced a sports car, they are going to race a stock car and they are going to go race an Indy car during the year. I'm excited about that.”
DID YOU EVER THINK YOU WOULD BE BACK IN INDYCAR?
“I've learned in life that you just take everything as it comes. You take one day at a time and you don't say no to anything and you expect everything to happen. Did I think it would happen like this? No, but I love the IndyCar Series. It's not like I left and stopped watching. I've still got a lot of friends in this series and I think this series has a lot of great things to offer. If it can just get put together the right way and go in the right direction, there's a lot of great things. Last year, I watched as many races as I could. It's some of the best Indy car racing I've ever seen and to have the championship come down to the end like it did... It's fun to watch and to be a part of and there's so many great drivers in it.
"For myself, putting myself against some of the best in the world and I know that's going to be a lot of hard work. I don't expect to just come in and dominate. It's going to be a lot of hard work. These guys are the best for a reason. I love the challenge and I'm excited to have this opportunity. I feel honored to have this opportunity. I'm going to do everything I can to make it right.”
WHY DO YOU THINK THE NASCAR FAN DOESN'T SEE WHAT A GREAT PRODUCT INDYCAR IS?
“I think it's just got to be marketed better. I just don't know if they [NASCAR fans] see it, honestly. That's part of the problem. If it's able to be marketed better, that's what over the last several years NASCAR has done. They made sure that they marketed their drivers and told their stories -- good or bad. Especially in life now, that's what people are drawn to. This series has got a great American champion with RHR (Ryan Hunter-Reay) and to see what he did last year to win the championship and have that, that story needs to be told.
"A guy like Will Power that has probably been the fastest man in the series the last couple of years and for whatever reason it hasn't happened as a championship, but those types of stories are what need to be told and I think it's not that people see it and they're just not attracted to it. I just don't think they see it. If we can market it better, the series can be strong. It's not that in the U.S. or North America that there's only room for one racing series -- there's plenty of room for a lot of racing series. It needs to be a strong open-wheel series and I just think it needs to be marketed better and if the series is able to do that then people are going to watch.
"There's so many great venues to go to. There's so many different types of venues. If you're an oval fan, you're going to see oval racing. If you love street course, there's a lot of great street course races. We're at one of the best pure open-wheel, motorcycle, whatever type of road course you want to call it -- we're here. There's something for everybody. It just needs to be marketed and shown better.”
IN MAKING THE TRANSITION BACK TO INDYCAR FROM STOCK CAR RACING, DID YOU USE THE DALLARA SIMULATOR IN ITALY?
“No, this is all just happening one day at a time. The most help I've gotten is from Helio (Castroneves) and from Will (Power) and from the race team. I'm just piecing it together as it comes.”
WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU WERE ON AN OVAL IN AN OPEN-WHEEL CAR?
DID YOU RACE THREE TIMES IN MILWAUKEE AND IN LAS VEGAS?
“Three times in Milwaukee and two in Vegas. One or two in Vegas. Plenty of oval experience. I got this.
"I'm not going to lie, I roll out onto pit lane in Indy, there's going to be some nerves there. I'm going to be a little nervous because I've been told that I'm not allowed to brake at the end of the straightaway. Actually they told me I could, they just said I would be really slow if I did that. There's definitely some nerves, there's some unknown there. Road course racing, I'll adapt to it pretty quick and hopefully get up to speed. It's going to take a little bit at Indy. Fortunately enough it's Indy, so we have plenty of time to get rolling.
"I'm with the best team so I think there's a couple of people that know how to get around there pretty well at the Penske organization. There is a guy named Rick Mears, he's not bad I heard. There's a lot of banners up inside the Penske garage and in the shop, it seems pretty good. There is a guy named Helio (Castroneves), he seems pretty good. Will (Power) is a big help to me because he was in Champ Car when I raced so he can kind of describe to me what it was like coming to Indy for the first time from the old cars and what to expect. There's a lot of people that are going to help me and I feel fortunate for that.”
HOW MUCH DO YOU SEE DRIVERS THAT YOU STARTED WITH BEING SUCCESSFUL IN INDYCAR NOW AS THE EVOLUTION OF THE SERIES?
“I think it just shows that the talent's there. There are some of the best that are there. It's fun at least because when I left there was still all the best there and unfortunately they were split between two series. You can sit there and argue all the time, ‘OK, who's better?' It was a terrible argument because you couldn't compare it. To have it back to one series and to have all these guys, it's fun to watch because you have to show up with your ‘A' game. If you don't, it's not like your fifth or sixth, you're going to be 20th. That's what makes it fun.
"It's good to see the guys that I raced against and I think you have a good mix of both. You have the guys like Dario (Franchitti) and Helio and those types of guys that have been in the series for a long time that are still really fast. Then you have the young guys like Will and (James) Hinchcliffe and RHR and all these guys that were really fast as young guys that have come in and they're stars of the series. It's a fun series and I'm looking forward to being a part of it.”
DID THE FACT THAT OPEN-WHEEL WAS SPLIT IN 2006 INCREASE YOUR DESIRE TO WANT TO GO TO NASCAR AND TRY THAT OUT?
“Yeah, it was no secret that being in Champ Car at that point, you didn't know what was going to happen. It was tough. I took a lot of heat for leaving, but at that point being sponsored by Red Bull and they had a Cup team starting, it wasn't like I was like, ‘OK, I'm just going to ditch one series and go to another.' I didn't know if the series I was going to be in was even going to be around next year and if I was even going to have a job. I didn't know if Jerry Forsythe was going to the IRL -- he hated it. It wasn't like I was guaranteed a job the next year, so I took a lot of heat for leaving because people thought I just left one job to go to another. No I left ,something that I didn't know if I was going to have a job the next year to a job that at least I knew was there. When I went into NASCAR, I didn't want to go into it like I did. I didn't think I was ready to go right to Cup, but at that point you can't turn it down. It's how it happened.”
IF THIS WORKS OUT FOR YOU, DO YOU THINK IT WILL ENTICE OTHER NASCAR DRIVERS TO TRY INDYCAR RACING?
“Honestly, I don't care. It doesn't matter to me if it does or it doesn't. For me, it's just focusing on myself and looking for the best opportunity, being happy in life and in general and then at a racetrack with whatever I'm driving. I think it's pretty simple. You make the series strong, you're going to entice a lot of people because it's a fun series to be a part of. You go to a lot of great venues and you drive a really cool racecar. I think it's pretty simple. I'm not going to entice people to come over. It's all about the series enticing them. If it's strong people will come. It's like the field of dreams -- if you build it, they will come.”
HAVE YOU HAD A CHANCE TO SEE THIS BARBER TRACK?
“I've played it in a lot of video games and I've watched a lot of video. It's almost the same, but not quite. It's a fun looking race track. Just talking to Helio and Will and they really enjoy this racetrack. It's got a good flow, it looks like. It's a track that you can really attack, it's got a lot of speed in it. I'm looking forward to getting out there. There's also a lot of little nuances around this place that it will only take laps to figure out. Hopefully, for two days it goes smooth.
"The biggest thing for me is, obviously, speed is important. You don't want to leave here at the bottom of the time charts a second off and think I'm OK. The good thing is the Penske racecars have been dominant around here since they've come here, so I know I'm going to have a good racecar, so for me it's about being comfortable. If I can leave this test being comfortable and feeling good in the racecar and kind of understand pit stops and how all that is going to work and things like that and still have decent speed, then I'll be ready to come back for the race weekend and know it's about the race weekend and not about learning the track more or learning these cars more. That's what I'm going to try to do for two days.”
HOW CLOSELY DO YOUR DRIVING STYLES MATCH WITH WILL POWER AND HELIO CASTRONEVES?
“I made it simple and said to start with their setups. I didn't care which one; they are both fast. I'll figure it out as it comes. I would say initially just looking at it, I'm more closer to Will -- he brakes really late and really hard on the pedal. I feel like in open-wheel racing, that is more how I was. Helio is more of a flow, kind of let it roll through the corner, but at the same point in these cars I don't have a driving style yet, so if I can kind of mix both and try to get the best of both worlds, then that's what I'm going to try to do. As I get comfortable with the racecar, then we'll start making changes and see what I feel like I need. The first half is all about just getting comfortable and just trying to stare at their data over and over again and figure out what makes them so good around this place.”
WHAT WOULD YOU THINK ABOUT THE POSSIBILITY OF A SECOND RACE AT INDIANAPOLIS?
“You have to be careful running a race at a place like Indy twice. Then you start losing all the prestige of it. What makes Indy, Indy is you go there for what used to be a month and is a couple weeks now, and it's down to that one race. The series would really have to look at would that be beneficial and would people come out for it or does it just lose the luster?
"To me, especially around a place like Indy, there is no reason to run a second race there. I think what it looks like is you need to go to places that don't have a race. Whether it's an oval or a street race or a road course -- get that city excited about that race. Go to more venues and get those fans excited because maybe you go to a venue where nobody has ever seen what an IndyCar race is all about and all it takes is going out there one time and then they're hooked. Indy is going to get the crowd, so I think it just needs to go to places, new places. I don't care what kind of venue it is, just go to new places. You have to keep the places that are strong and bring in new cities that can just love Indy car racing and know what it's all about. Me, I wouldn't want to go to Indy twice, whether it's a road course or another oval race. You win the Indy 500, you're in Victory Lane there and one person gets to say that every year. No reason for a second opportunity.”
IS DRIVING IN THE INDY 500 SOMETHING YOU HAVE ALWAYS WANTED TO DO?
“Of course. Being an open-wheel guy, I miss not being able to do that when I was in Champ Car. I felt like when they split, a little bit of the Indy luster kind of got lost. As the series has come back together, you've had a lot of great races there the last couple years. I'd never even been to Indy up until I rolled out in a stock car for the first time and thought, ‘OK, this is what Indy is all about, I get it, but it's still not the Indy 500.'
"Honestly, when I sit here and talk about it right now, I'm excited and I've got a lot of emotions, but they will be nothing close to what it's actually like for the first time when I roll out there April 11 for rookie orientation and it definitely won't be the same until I get introduced and you walk down to the yard of bricks and they introduce you and you get those 200,000 people cheering or booing whatever. At least it's a reaction.”