AJ Allmendinger’s eyes light up when he talks about The Call, the moment his former employer Roger Penske reached out to him and gave the 31-year-old Los Gatos, Calif., native the second chance he so desperately wanted but wasn’t sure if he deserved.
It was a life-changing moment, one that ultimately ended with Allmendinger behind the wheel of a Penske Racing Dallara for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. There, Allmendinger will start in the middle of Row 2, ahead of Penske teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves.
It’s a reversal of fortune that verges on remarkable and a return home of sorts for Allmendinger, who won five races in the now-defunct Champ Car World Series in 2006 before moving to the start-up Red Bull NASCAR team the following season.
After struggling at Red Bull and then racing for Richard Petty Motorsports for three seasons, Allmendinger began the 2012 NASCAR season as a last-minute fill-in for Kurt Busch. He was released by Penske Aug. 1 after a random drug test at Kentucky Speedway detected the presence of amphetamines in his system. And while Allmendinger quickly completed NASCAR’s Road To Recovery rehab plan, he had lost what far and away was his best ride just 17 races into his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
James Finch, car owner for the low-budget independent Phoenix Racing team, put Allmendinger into his No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet for four Sprint Cup races late in 2012. But the failed drug test and a prior DUI no-contest plea in 2009 meant no major sponsor was willing to take a chance on the driver. And with no sponsor, it was hard to find a team owner that would touch him.
Until Penske picked up the phone, that is.
“It started mid-January, I guess, when Roger kinda called me up,” Allmendinger said.
What Penske said startled him.
“‘Today, I kinda got an idea, what do you think of it?’” Allmendinger said Penske told him. “‘I might want you to run the Indy 500 if we get a sponsor. What do you think?’”
“I don’t know, Roger, I’ll have to get back to you on that. Let me check my calendar. Might be busy that weekend, I’m not sure,” Allmendinger joked. “I was like, ‘Uh, yeah. Yes, sir. Whatever you want. Just let me know.”
“‘OK, well, we’ll work on that,’ he said and hangs the phone up,” Allmendinger said.
Penske called Allmendinger back a week later and said it looked like the deal was going to come to fruition.
“It kind of steamrolled from there,” Allmendinger said. “It’s kind of funny how it happened. It went from just Indy to, ‘Well, I think we need to get you in a race, so let’s do Barber (Motorsports Park) to start with. … well, actually we’re going to add the Sebring test … we’re going to add Long Beach now.”
The Penske relationship has been a huge break for Allmendinger.
“Everything that’s happened with Roger, I feel very fortunate,” Allmendinger said. “The racing side of it’s great, but that he’s cared enough the whole time to just stay in contact with me means way more than him putting me in a race car, for sure.”
Penske has demonstrated loyalty before; he stuck with Sam Hornish Jr. despite his early struggles in moving to NASCAR. This year, that loyalty has been rewarded with Hornish becoming a legitimate championship contender in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
As for Allmendinger, Penske said he’s earned his way back into the top level of motorsports.
“He has done everything he needed to in order to get back to racing at the top level of the sport,” Penske said of Allmendinger. “We have always believed in AJ and his ability and he deserves this opportunity. We think he will be a strong competitor.”
So far at Indianapolis, Allmendinger has done an excellent job.
“He’s easy to get along with,” said Power, who competed against Allmendinger in 2006, one year before Allmendinger moved to NASCAR. “When I raced him, he was very fast.”
Now, Allmendinger is getting adjusted to racing open-wheel cars again, a process that takes time.
“I think with AJ, obviously, it’s more of a matter of laps,” said four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears, who is helping Allmendinger get back into the open-wheel groove. “… Getting comfortable, getting back in the swing of things, getting comfortable with the team, working with the guys. With these cars working on the timing on the racetrack as far as traffic goes, that kind of thing. That’s just laps. That’s all it is. He obviously knows how to drive a race car.”
Beyond Indy and Detroit the following week, Allmendinger’s future remains to be seen. He could do more IndyCar races, he might end up back in the Sprint Cup Series again or even run some sports car events.
“It’s our goal to put together more races,” Penske president Tim Cindric said. “Whether or not they’re IZOD races or what have you, it’s our goal to expand in whatever way we can.”
This much is certain, though: If Roger Penske calls again, Allmendinger will answer.
“I’m never going to turn down a Roger Penske-offered race car,” Allmendinger said. “The one thing I will say for sure is if Roger Penske’s going to offer me something full time, whether it’s NASCAR, IndyCar, sports car, whatever, I’m not going to turn it down. Because it’s pretty special to be a Penske driver.”