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‘Just enjoying the ride’

Tue., May 21, 2013

AJ Allmendinger will make his Indianapolis 500 debut Sunday, seven years after leaving open-wheel racing for NASCAR. (Associated Press)
AJ Allmendinger will make his Indianapolis 500 debut Sunday, seven years after leaving open-wheel racing for NASCAR. (Associated Press)

Allmendinger making the most of second chance given by Penske

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – AJ Allmendinger’s parents attended their first Indianapolis 500 in 1979, when they camped in a grassy lot and watched Rick Mears win his first 500.

Their son was born two years later – Greg Allmendinger named him after A.J. Foyt, his favorite driver – and for a time it seemed like the Allmendingers would make it back to Indy with him. Allmendinger had risen through the open-wheel ranks to become one of the top drivers in the Champ Car Series with a five-win 2006 season.

But a NASCAR opportunity came along and Allmendinger switched series, and the dream of one day cheering on their son in the “Biggest Spectacle In Racing” began to fade.

Until one bad decision cost Allmendinger the best job he ever had – and Roger Penske decided to give him a rare second chance.

Allmendinger will make his Indianapolis 500 debut on Sunday, seven years after he left open-wheel racing – in a Penske Racing entry, no less. It doesn’t get much bigger or better than this, and all these years later, Allmendinger has finally brought his parents back to the 500.

His parents arrived in time to see Allmendinger qualify fifth on Saturday.

“Then my dad went and found Larry Foyt and said, ‘Where’s your dad at? I want to go meet him, I haven’t met him yet. … By the way, I’m AJ’s dad,’ ” Allmendinger said. “It’ll be cool to really share this with my parents, especially my dad, for them to experience this.”

Allmendinger has learned enough in the last 10 months not to question why things happen.

Allmendinger stupidly accepted a strange pill from a friend who said it would help with his fatigue. Allmendinger says the pill he popped last June was Adderall – he didn’t ask what it was as he was swallowing it – and it caused him to fail a random NASCAR drug test. Allmendinger was out of a job since Penske had no choice but to fire the driver when the backup “B” sample also came back positive.

He participated in NASCAR’s “Road to Recovery” program, and learned during that time he had to stop putting so much pressure on himself, that his happiness didn’t solely depend on his results on the race track.

Allmendinger didn’t ask Penske why he was standing behind him, why he brought him out to the IndyCar season finale at Fontana in September as his guest, or why he continued to think of ways to get Allmendinger back in the race car.

When The Captain called and asked Allmendinger if he had any interest in running the Indianapolis 500, the only thing Allmendinger said was: “Yes, sir. Whatever you want, sir.”

“I feel very fortunate, the racing side of it is great, but that he’s cared enough to stay in contact,” Allmendinger said. “That means way more than putting me in a race car. I’m just enjoying the ride right now. I’m never going to turn down a Roger Penske race car.”

Only Allmendinger found things to very different when he returned. It hasn’t been easy, at all, and Allmendinger has leaned on Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power in his transition. It was Castroneves who shook down Allmendinger’s car before rookie orientation, and Allmendinger was touched that Castroneves hung around on the pit stand talking to him during his laps on the track.

He’s gotten more comfortable with each passing day, and his teacher has been none other than Mears, the four-time Indianapolis winner and the driver his parents saw win all those years ago. From there it’s on to Detroit for the IndyCar doubleheader with Penske.

But Allmendinger has nothing on his schedule beyond the Detroit races. He’s run four of 11 NASCAR races this year with Phoenix Racing, but owner James Finch is threatening to shut the team down after the July race at Indy.

He doesn’t worry about it, though. Allmendinger, still confident despite his journey, has a plan.

“The way I look at it, if I go win Indy, Roger’s gotta give me more races,” he smiled.

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