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Q and A with AJ Allmendinger at Atlanta Motor Speedway

 

October 27, 2006

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AJ Allmendinger
Bob Heathcote/AutoRacing1.com

Q) AJ, you started out in the Red Bull Driver Search for the Formula One deal in the same class that Scott Speed was in.  Can you talk about the evolution of your thinking, getting yourself from a Formula One goal to a NASCAR goal? And also you donít seem to have a whole lot of trouble with the difference of the cars; can you talk about the difference in open wheel and full body racing?

AJ) In the Red Bull Driver Search at that point you are just kind of searching around so see what you want to do for your career. I went through the Driver Search and really got to meet some of the Red Bull people.  I really enjoyed the Driver Search but at the point I had already made a name for myself in open wheel racing here in the States and thought that was the best place for me to stay at that point.  I told Red Bull that I wanted to work with them in future in some means and fortunately enough in 2004 I was signed by them as a driver athlete while in the Champ Car series.  Over the last couple years, I really enjoyed Champ Car.  But when I was let go this year from my first team at RuSPORT, I put out the feelers for everything at that point.  As drivers, we see NASCAR all around in the States and we know popular it is and I kind of put the feelers out there to see if there was any opportunity. I made a couple of phone calls and through Red Bull as a driver athlete got to get on the phone with Bill Davis.  I just wanted a truck test to see what it was like.  I did the test and he has given me a couple of races and I did fairly well at that. Honestly, I really enjoyed the racing more than I ever expected to.  I knew I was going to have fun because of the competition level.  You are racing against 36 to 43 guys out there. The nuance of driving the truck was a lot fun and Toyota was gracious enough to give me that opportunity with Bill Davis. Because of that Red Bull took a look at me and was pleased with how I did and thank God they are giving me this opportunity to get this chance.

Q) Based on your conversations with younger guys coming up through Champ Car and the IRL, is there a lot of undercurrent of people thinkingÖíwell maybe NASCAR is the direction I should headíÖ are you the first of what could be many?

AJ) I donít know.  I canít speak for anybody else.  At this point it was the right opportunity for me.   Iíve had such a great relationship with Red Bull and the support that they have given me that I willing to take this chance.  I know the effort that they put into it and that Toyota puts into their programs and how successful they want to be.  I just knew for me that this was the right chance for me to take and it would be crazy for me to turn it down. I think it really comes down to that in NASCAR, whether itís in Nextel Cup, or through the Busch ranks, or the Truck ranks, or even ARCAÖthere is just a lot more opportunity for drivers to get into a seat, make a living and get their name recognized.  In open wheel racing, there are only 17 to 18 cars in each series and that is tough to get in there and get your name recognized and get a ride.

Q) When did you first start talking with Marty Gaunt (VP-GM Team Red Bull), was it before you started your truck races, because they were there for the first ones and obviously they were interested from the start?

AJ) We had some discussions, it wasnít so much through Marty, but just through the people that I knew at Red Bull in general and that is how I got in contact with Bill as I said and that is how we started talking.  Obviously, they wanted to look at me and see how I would do in the truck races, so I had spoke to Marty before the truck races, but we hadnít had any discussions about the future of being part of the team.  They just wanted to see how I would adapt to truck races and more importantly how I would enjoy it and see if I could handle the schedule and see if I wanted to be a part of NASCAR racing.  That was the path that it led down to.

Q) This has been a tumultuous year in your life.  You went from getting kicked out of a ride and winning five races in another and now you are leaving that whole discipline.  Can you just talk about the state of racing today?  Is this just a decision for you in your personal career or do you believe there are issues that will make others walk away from open wheel racing in this country?

AJ) For me this has just a crazy year in my life.  I never expected to be sitting here in Atlanta right now talking to you guys about the new deal I just signed. When I was with RuSPORT I did not have that option. My contract was so locked down there was no way I was going to drive anything else. Iíve always wanted to attempt and see what it was like to drive these vehicles, but at the same point I just knew there was no chance I was ever going to get. But being let go I went out there and looked around. Honestly I wouldnít change it for the world. Iíve learned so much from it. Iíve grown up from it. I think it has made me a better race car driver, in and out of the race car.

Q) I donít know the details of your contract and Iím assuming you will make more money finishing 43rd in a Cup race than 1st in a Champ Car race, so wondering how much of a consideration that is?

AJ) Unfortunately, as Iím looking out the window, if it keeps raining, I wonít make any money they said because I wonít qualify for the race.  I never really like to go into details of my contract. But with everything that has been out there, Iím not going to lie. I will make more money, but it is because I will be doing double the races, or over double the races, Iím doing more media, Iím doing more things off the racetrack, because of that have me earn more money.  Obviously, in the future, if I can be more successful and be one of the top tier Nextel Cup drivers, the money will come. That wasnít anything in my decision.

Q) You said this year has been kind of crazy.  Can you describe what that emotional roller coaster has been like?

AJ) It feels like at times my head has been spinning.  The emotions I went through from being released, to being rehired, winning five races, and then having this opportunity come up. Itís been something I would never have imagined or would every happen to me. This is a year I will never forget, Iíve learned so much from.  Itís been amazing and fantastic.

Q) Can you talk about your expectations for your learning curve, especially with the seemingly rapid switch from open wheel to NASCAR?

AJ) I know it is going to be difficult.  I never want to come in here and say that we are going to dominate or that we are going to go in and win races right away.  I have confidence in my ability, definitely confidence in the teamís ability and in the manufacturerís ability. We know it is going to be a struggle.  Ultimately, the first six or seven races next year the goal is to make each race because we are going to have to qualify on time. Where ever we start at, we want to keep improving through each quarter of the year and by the end of the year, if we can say we are a lot better from where we started, then for me as a driver and us as a team, then we can say it was a great year.  It is just about improving from the first of the year until the end of the year.

Q) How concerned are you about getting enough seat time between now and Daytona 500?

AJ)  Obviously, we want to get a chance to try and qualify today and if we donít get that opportunity then we will try at Texas next weekend.   I know Iím going to have a lot of seat time before Daytona.  Obviously I would like to do a race or two before we get into attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500, but if that chance doesnít allow itself, Iím still going to do as much testing as I can or if I can do a Busch race or two, a Truck race or two, then I think I will definitely have enough laps by February next year.

Q) Does long term earning potential play into your decision to come to NASCAR (paraphrased)?

AJ) Iím not going to sit here and lie and say that how strong NASCAR is and how popular and knowing that 43 teams are well-funded and you have job opportunities didnít play into my decision making.  But ultimately that wasnít the main reasons. That was one of the little reasons why. The main reason was to work with Red Bull and the support they have given me. I love it as a company and what that means to my personality, to be myself, and do my job and that was the main reason to be a part of this.

Q) What was your reaction to Truck racing at Talladega?

AJ) I was saying to myself Ďwhat the heck am I doing in the middle of thisíÖfor me that was some of the most fun Iíve had in a race car at Talladega.  It was awesome. In Champ Car we didnít race many superspeedways by the time I got into the series. You usually are going to be only two or three wide, because in an open wheel car if you touch wheels it can be really dangerous and a big accident is going to happen. For me being four or five wide didnít affect me that bad.  It was just a lot of fun. The thing I had fun about was trying to pick the right line and decide when to go and not to go. It was so fun and I canít wait to get to Daytona next year to be part of the Nextel Cup series and see what that is all about.

Q) With your Truck experience at Talladega, do you feel like you have a good baseline going into the Daytona, and not some vast unknown? Having some idea what drafting and pushing and pulls are all about?

AJ) Well I still have the rookie strip on me so Iím definitely going to get punted to the back several times. The race at Talladega gives me a little bit of the experience at Daytona, but it is not like Iím going in there with the mindset that I know all now and have learned everything I can. It is going to be way different in the Cup cars obviously. The talent level there from top to bottom is so huge and itís going to be difficult to be one of the top guys. Just racing that race gives me a little bit of knowledge so that Iím not blindsided at Daytona, but there still is going to be a lot to learn.

Q) What was the reaction in the Champ Car paddocks about Juan Pablo Montoyaís decision about going to NASCAR?  Did it help legitimize NASCAR in the eyes of open wheelers who once looked down on the sport?

AJ) Iím not sure of the reaction through the paddock. I think a couple people were a bit surprised, not because he was going to NASCAR, but just all of sudden out of nowhere his name popped up.  One day is was in Formula One and then next day he signed the NASCAR deal. It was one of those when everybody was caught off guard. I donít think him coming to series all of sudden made NASCAR okay in open wheel guys eyes. I think it has been like that in the last five to six years. People know about it.  They know how popular it is. Guys like Paul Tracy and Jimmy Vassar have come over here and given it a shot. They havenít avoided it; it is just about getting the right opportunity. It is tough to get your foot in the door.

Q) Your qualifying crash at Loudon was a really bad crash, what was your emotions after that since you went to the back (of the grid) and still got a top 15 out of that?

AJ) I have a streak going.  Every time I am in a new vehicle Iíve crashed it.  It is not a streak Iím really proud of, but it has worked for me up to this point. Obviously, I was disappointed. I didnít really know what to expect going into qualifying. Working with my crew I really didnít know what to tell my crew chief so I could be comfortable in qualifying. I just overdid in qualifying, being too aggressive and thatís something Iím always going to do, Iím never going to hold back. And so for that reason I wasnít mad at myself for crashing, I was just disappointed. I really felt we had gotten that truck set up great for the race and I just had to suck it up, get back into the mindset and the whole Bill Davis Racing team did a great job to basically get Bill Lesterís backup truck setup and from there it was just kind of starting slow in the race, got into the race, got into the flow of things and just slowly get our way up through the field and finish 13th.

Q) Can you talk a little bit about the Red Bull operation? What theyíve got over there so far, what you see when you walk in the place, were you impressed, that sort of thing?

AJ) A lot of free Red Bull, thatís for sure. I mean, thereís Red Bull everywhere and thatís great because I love Red Bull. But no, itís a place that you can see is a well oiled machine. Itís run well, theyíre slowly bringing in more people, the right people and I really love seeing where itís going. I donít have the experience level in NASCAR to see what really needs to be done to be better and thatís their job to figure out, but just the things that Iíve seen so far give me a lot of confidence and Iím really excited to be there. That was a reason for my decision. I got to see that a couple of times meeting with them and being there and I mean, theyíre definitely working hard, doing a lot of work to get the cars ready and everything ready so I think so far itís great and itís just building from there.

Q) AJ, I think a lot of race fans believe all race car drivers sit around in private clubs somewhere and all know each other, do you have any buddies in NASCAR, do you know any of these guys or do you have any kinds of relationships with any stock car drivers?

AJ) Honestly, I donít know many of them. Guys like Casey Mears, basically the younger open wheel guys, itís not like weíre close friends because guys like Casey, I was just starting in kind of the Champ Car ranks and the junior formulas he was kind of right there and then came over to NASCAR. But, I know him and weíll talk when we see each other. But no, thatís a part of this, being here this weekend, meeting a lot of the drivers, picking their brains, getting all of the information that I can so I make myself better and Iím not a hazard out there on the race track to everybody. Thatís one of the goals this weekend even if we donít get to qualify is to go out there and meet as many drivers as I can, just introduce myself and try to learn from them.

Q) AJ, just wondering if you had any conversation with Jerry Forsythe or Kevin Kalkhoven before you made this decision, trying to get you to stay. The second part of that is were you surprised when Jerry decided to pull the plug on you and didnít allow you to finish out the year?

AJ) Obviously I was in talks with Jerry to try and work out a contract and do that, but it wasnít like we had conversations with Kevin about them trying to beg me to stay. And Jerry was really respectful in letting me go and giving me this opportunity and you know, I wanted to finish out the year and Iím disappointed that he made the decision to let me go before the last race, but I also respect it because I know that they need to focus on next year and look towards their program of who theyíre going to put in the car. And for me, Iím excited because it allows me possibly more opportunity to get in any NASCAR vehicle and get more time in it. But, I have no harsh feelings and Iím just thankful for what Jerry did for me all this year, because honestly I know without his team and without the success that I had with that team, and the victories I had, I wouldnít be sitting here right now.
 
Q) Does it make any sense to you that Champ Car, an American-based, North American series doesnít seem to really care if there are any American drivers in the series or in the pipeline full time?

AJ) I think they care, itís just a tough situation right now to have the sponsors and the funding and for the guys to get into the seats. I know that theyíll at least have one, probably a couple Americans there without me, but I canít make a comment on that because itís all based on Jerry and Kevinís ideas of where the series needs to go and what they need to have in it to be successful.

Q) The on-track expectations are one thing, but the off-track expectations are going to be just as heightened just as well, especially given your sponsor. Are you pretty much prepared for all that thatís going to come in on an average race week? Do you pretty much know what youíre getting into?

AJ) I know what Iím getting into and I know obviously, the schedule and how tough itís going to be, but youíre never fully ready until youíre actually in there and adjusting to it and seeing what itís all about, but if I didnít feel like I couldnít handle all the media obligations and all the races and everything that comes along with being a NEXTEL Cup driver, I wouldnít have made this decision. Because I know that when you make this decision, it becomes your life, itís not just your job, itís a life thing that youíre living through the whole time, so Iím ready for it and Iím ready to take it on 100% and do everything it takes to be one of the top-tier drivers in the series.

Q) As a follow up, going back to mid-season before your first win, could you have expected yourself to be in this position?

AJ) No way, just as I said, because with the first team, the contract didnít even allow me to look at other things and at that point I was just trying to focus on how to win a race in Champ Car and I always said once I won one race, Iíd win a lot because it takes that first one to make me confident and learn what it takes. Iím quickly learning that in racing, anything can happen and you expect anything to happen, so mid-season ran on and all this started to happen, nothing became a surprise to me because Iím just starting to expect something crazy to always happen and something that you werenít expecting to happen.

The author can be contacted at nascar@autoracing1.com

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