What happens when you mix an all American boy with a healthy dose of speed and determination? You get A.J. Almendinger. During the recent open test at Road America on August 3-4 2006, we had the opportunity to talk with A.J. Allmendinger about life inside and outside of Champ Car.
Mecca of Speed: A.J. you have three years of experience in Champ Car. The last time you were in a Champ Car at Road America was in 2004. Have you found any changes between the repaving of the corners, or the set up of the car that gives it a little different feel then in the past?
A.J. Allmendinger: For me the track is fairly new because this is really only my third time here between Barber Dodge and Champ Car. I’m still learning the track. It’s probably not one of my best tracks, although this two-day test is going to be a lot of help once we get back here in September.
The set up of the car is completely different. Obviously, I was at RuSPORT in 2004 during my rookie season and it was a bit of a struggle. So this year with Forsythe I think we have got a better feel for the car.
Between me trying to learn the track and us (Forsythe Racing) trying to get a decent balance, that’s what we are working on.
Mecca of Speed: For people new to the sport, when you come to an open test do you have a primary goal, or are you in an A. B. C. type scenario on what you want to accomplish during the test?
A.J. Allmendinger: We have certain things that we want to test. Things for a specific track or things that you specifically want to try on the car, since the testing is so limited.
But really what you want to do, is leave from this test with some good notes for what helped and what didn’t help. To have a good base line with the car, because coming back here in late September, it’s going to be a lot different temperature and conditions. I think if you have a good base line to go off of, you can have a solid car when you unload off the trailer on the Friday of the race and have something to work off of during the weekend.
Mecca of Speed: Between fine-tuning aerodynamics and chassis adjustments, does Forsythe Racing make changes through the last warm up session, or is it pretty much dependent on the circuit?
A.J. Allmendinger: I think you are always working on the car because the circuit changes so much. Whether it’s a road or street circuit, a lot of rubber gets built up throughout the weekend and that changes the track each session. One session you can be really good, then you start the next session with the same set up on the same day or the next day and be completely off. You are always fine-tuning and I think that’s what makes it exciting. When you get in the car for the race, you think you have a good car, but you are never 100% sure.
Mecca of Speed: Regarding set-up, ideally you would want a neutral car. However, sometimes you have to set up your car with a little under steer or overseer. Is there a preference on which way you prefer to have a car set up?
A.J. Allmendinger: I think a touch of under steer is what makes these things fast. Especially at a track like this (Road America) with high-speed corners. If it’s just a bit loose it can be really scary and you can’t push the car that much. With that said, if you have too much under steer, you are not very fast either. Fine-tuning these things is very difficult as you are always working towards that perfect edge.
These cars have so much horsepower; it’s easy to burn the rear tires off the car. If you can get a touch of under steer, where you are not burning the rear tires that is the ideal set-up. I think that’s the quickest way in a Champ Car, but its so hard and difficult to get to that point.
Mecca of Speed: With the Push 2 Pass button, do you find that as a stronger offensive or defensive tool?
A.J. Allmendinger: Unfortunately you have to use it as both, which sometimes still makes it hard to pass. More then anything it’s an offensive tool because that is the way you are going to get around a guy. You know if he is on Push 2 Pass and you’re not, there is no way of getting around him.
It’s defiantly an offensive tool, but there is always a kind of game throughout the race. If a guy is behind you and he has got a run on you, you kind of always have to go to the button and be on it to avoid getting passed.
It’s one of those games with it being limited to 60 seconds, you can easily make a guy run out of Push 2 Pass and then he is screwed for the rest of the race. It’s always a balance from early in the race to late in the race. You want to have some late in the race, whether it’s a restart, or to try and get around a guy.
It’s a long race and a short amount of Push 2 Pass time to use it up, You have really got to be smart about it.
Mecca of Speed: Looking to the future with the Panoz chassis, it’s lighter and little smaller then the current Lola chassis. What do you see as the real benefit of the Panoz that will move Champ Car back to where the series was in the early 90s when we had side by side racing and battles throughout the field?
A.J. Allmendinger: First things first, you are going to have more cars. So weather you are battling up front or mid-pack, I think there is always going to be battles going on. The last couple of years it’s been 18, 19 cars in the series. Fast cars, but if a couple of the guys get taken out in turn one; it’s kind of a thin field. You bring back 20 to 22, maybe 24 cars. I think that is what Champ Car always had, 26 to 28 cars. Maybe the leader could be 15 second ahead, but the fans didn’t notice it that much because there was still side-by-side racing throughout the field. The leader was always in lapped traffic and there was always something happening. I think you are going to bring that back.
The bigger thing is they have been working on the aerodynamics of the car so you are not affected as much when you are behind somebody. I think that’s the biggest difference you will see between the big wings on these cars and the new Panoz. If you currently loose air off the wings, you loose 500 hundred to maybe a thousand pounds of down force. Just being behind someone, the air is not hitting your wings, so you are not going to get around them. They have really worked hard on the aerodynamic package. The numbers show that it’s better; we are just going to have to wait and see until we get in the car.
Mecca of Speed: You did some endurance racing earlier this year. Is this something you would like to do more of when there are openings in the Champ Car schedule?
A.J. Allmendinger: I really enjoyed it. I’m going to do the Utah race with the Grand Am guys and Pacific Coast Motorsports. With Champ Car being only 14 and hopefully 16 races next year, there are time gaps when you can get in a car. Especially with the 24 Hours of Daytona. From November to March or April we weren’t doing too much.
Next year will be running a little more because the new car will allow for more testing. Champ Car will open the testing rules up a bit, but you will still have some free time.
I really found it enjoyable to go somewhere where the pressure is not so high because A. it’s an endurance race you are not just flat out all the time and B. it’s something out of the norm to go try. I enjoyed it, that’s why I’m going to do the Utal race. I would love to do more races in my off time. It’s something to keep in shape and more importantly I have fun doing it.
Mecca of Speed: Did you have to adjust your driving style much for the Grand Am cars?
A.J. Allmendinger: Oh yah, it’s a big car that moves around a lot more and has a lot less down force. It was a lot of fun to drive. You could slide around and still be quick. When these things (Champ Cars) are sliding around you are not going fast. It was tough, but it was so much fun. You were around people all the time, weather it was the DP (Daytona Prototype) cars or the GT (Grand Touring) cars. There were 70 guys and you seem to be passing three to four guys a lap!
The first time you go out there, you flat spot the tires. It’s real easy because you smash the brakes about 200 markers too late in a Grand Am car thinking you are in a Champ Car. I thinks that’s why you see a lot of us open wheel guys get in the cars and send them off pretty quick. Then we bring our driving style back to the car’s capabilities.
Mecca of Speed: Was it a challenge dealing with the GT and lower class cars?
A.J. Allmendinger: It was a mess. You always went into the corner under somebody. One eye looking at the corner, the other eye looking at the guy you were passing. You didn’t know if he was coming down on you or not. At times you thought he was leaving a lot of room but he wasn’t.
I think what makes it exciting is you have got the gentlemen drivers out there that don’t have a lot of experience. Sometimes they are in GT cars and you don’t know what the heck they are going to do when they are out there with you, running side by side. There were so many times I was under a guy and I thought I was clean; he was way out there letting me by. That was just his normal line; he was coming back and I had to get on the brakes. You just had to make sure you hit him square so you didn’t bend anything on your car. It was never a dull moment out there. It’s a lot of fun for sure.
Mecca of Speed: 20 years from now I’m in a bookstore looking at the A.J. Allmendinger autobiography. What would the title be?
A.J. Allmendinger: Hopefully if all goes well “One of the greatest race car drivers ever.”
Mecca of Speed: Fair enough, if you were a Seinfeld character which character would you be?
A.J. Allmendinger: Kramer for sure, I’m just out of control.
Mecca of Speed: You have got the hair growing.
A.J. Allmendinger: I’ve got the hair growing. Defiantly, if you ask any of these crew guys they will tell you, I’m crazy and have no clue what I’m doing most of the time. I’m off on my own planet. Defiantly Kramer.
Mecca of Speed: Who is the better miniature golf player, you or Justin Wilson?
A.J. Allmendinger: He aint got nothing. Go ask him who has the points lead right now. All you have to do is see the point’s sheet; I’m dominating right now! He may tell you a different story. We just played a round on Tuesday before we came out here and I stretched the points lead out a little bit more. He’ll say it’s because of my scoring, but the rule is the winner of the last game keeps score of the next one.
They are looking at it, they know it’s the last hole again, they choke and I come through and win again. I gave him crap, I said “He may have stretched the points lead out in the Champ Car races in San Jose but where it really counts, where the pride is in miniature golf I’m dominating and that’s all that matters!”
Mecca of Speed: You were Paul Tracy’s protégé, so to speak in go-karts. If down the road you start working with younger drivers, what quality or ethic do you feel would pay them the most dividends?
A.J. Allmendinger: The attitude of never giving up. So many times this sport can kick you in the butt. It kicks you more in the butt then it ever gives you satisfaction and pride. You could have 15 DNFs in a row, you go out and win that 16th race and it almost erases everything that just happened.
I can honestly say winning in Portland erased two years of being so close, choking and not getting the job done. It’s like you forgot about the bad, that’s the way this sport is. Racing will just keep kicking you, keep kicking you, keep kicking you and then finally throw you a bone. You win a race and it erases the rest. You have to have the attitude of never giving up. If you keep getting kicked and give up you are never going to get to the point of winning.
Mecca of Speed: Last question, name one thing about A.J. Allmendinger outside of racing that would surprise people?
A.J. Allmendinger: Honestly, it’s probably that I’m pretty boring at home. You see how fiery I am at the track. Emotional and all that, but at home when I’m chillin’, I just like to play video games and work out to stay in shape. Other then that I’m just chillin’ at home, that’s it.
You see my mentality at the racetrack. Besides being competitive when we go do stupid stuff like miniature golf or bowling I’m pretty low key.
Mecca of Speed: So during the week you are just an average guy.
A.J. Allmendinger: An average guy playing video games. On-line racing more then anything.
Mecca of Speed: Does it hurt if someone beats you?
A.J. Allmendinger: Ah, I get pissed. That’s still the competitive side of me. That’s not what people would be surprised by. I hate getting beat, whether it’s in a racing video game or anything else, I hate getting beat. As long as we are not being competitive, I like to be low key, sit on my couch and watch TV.
Mecca of Speed: I’m happy I do reporting and don’t drive out there with you.
A.J. Allmendinger: Well thank you.
Mecca of Speed: Thank you for your time and good luck.
A.J. Allmendinger: Thank you.
Content credit A.J. Allmendinger and John Vatne. Photo credit Scott Rohloff.