All it took was one night and one bad decision to destroy what AJ Allmendinger worked 20 years to achieve.
Allmendinger, who earned a coveted ride with Penske Racing this year, tested positive for amphetamine last month during a random drug test at Kentucky Speedway on June 29.
After additional testing, Allmendinger says, the report revealed the substance contained the same chemical compounds as found in the brand-name Adderall.
Allmendinger insists he wasn’t “hiding” the facts by not coming forward early in the process. He felt there was nothing he could add until the toxicologists identified the exact substance, the identity of which he believed would help his situation. And until he met with team owner Roger Penske, there was nothing to report on his status, either.
“I’m sure it looked like I was running away,” Allmendinger said. “And maybe I could have handled it a little different. But would I still be in the same position? Most likely. Everyone needs to handle things differently. I had to do some soul searching before I came out publicly.”
Allmendinger admits he was “scared” to ask his fellow competitors for advice. But he “put his pride aside” on Saturday and called Jeff Gordon. The four-time champion, who has been publicly sympathetic throughout Allmendinger’s setback, told the driver to “tell the truth.”
So now Allmendinger is talking about what led to his suspension.
“I got to Kentucky early for a few sponsor commitments and went to hang out with a buddy for a couple of days before we got going,” Allmendinger said. “We were out early evening. I hadn’t been sleeping well — all season, really with the way things had been going, obviously, the expectations and everything like that. I was really tired, had no energy, nothing. We were out, he had a couple of his friends with him and I was struggling to even stay awake. One of his friends said, ‘Oh, I have an energy pill that I take for working out.’
“I didn’t think anything of it because I’ve taken energy supplements for working out, that my trainer gives me. So I didn’t even think about it. That was my big mistake. It was nothing crazy. It just gave me a little more energy.”
That was three days before Allmendinger reported to the track for NASCAR’S weekend activities at Kentucky. When his name was called to be tested that Friday afternoon, he “thought nothing of it.” Since transitioning from the open-wheel ranks to NASCAR, the 30-year-old Los Gatos, Calif., native has been tested 15-20 times.
“The next week, Saturday, right before the race at Daytona, they let me know that I tested positive for amphetamine,” Allmendinger said. “Honestly, I’m naïve to drugs. I’ve never taken them. So when they told me I tested positive for amphetamine, I didn’t even know what that was. I asked, ‘Is that bad? Is that a big deal?’ Because when it comes to drugs, I’m probably like 80 percent of the world, I think hard-core drugs.
“So it kind of blew me away when they said drugs. I said, ‘I’ve never taken drugs. Test me every day if you want.’ At that point, they had a no-tolerance policy and suspended me right there. I had no clue what it was or what it could have been. It never dawned on me what that pill might have been.
“We went through the ‘A’ (urine) sample and I asked what it was and I still didn’t understand what it could be when they told me it was amphetamine. Then we went through the ‘B’ sample and when it came back positive, they told me it was Adderall or some form of Adderall. After retracing my steps I discovered that the pill he gave was not an energy supplement, it was prescription Adderall.”
Adderall is prescribed to adults and children to combat symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Allmendinger said after taking the pill he “felt no different” than he had from taking previous “energy pills” or supplements. That’s why he “didn’t panic” after the initial test at Kentucky because he hadn’t tested positive before. While Allmendinger admittedly took Advil PM “to sleep” in the past and Nyquil the night before qualifying at Kentucky to relieve cold symptoms, he was dumbfounded by the results.
The first tremor of terror struck at Daytona, where Allmendinger was initially suspended from the Sprint Cup Series.
“It was the moment that I was sitting in the NASCAR hauler and they said, ‘You’re not racing today,’ ” Allmendinger said. “I said to them, ‘Well, I guess my career is ending right now if that’s the case.’ I was shocked because I didn’t know what it could have been. I was lost.
“That moment, ‘It’s over,’ flashed in front of me. I had to go home and think about it and wait and figure out what’s going on. There was a lot of crying, to ‘It’s going to be OK’ to ‘What the hell is going on’ to more crying. I went through the gamut of emotions throughout the ride home. Well, not all the emotions, because happy was never one of them. All of the bad emotions — I went through all of them.”
In the next few weeks, Allmendinger attempted to make sense of what had happened. The most difficult part of the process was coming clean with Penske, whom Allmendinger has idolized throughout his racing career.
“It was hard not knowing what was happening,” Allmendinger said. “I just knew I wasn’t in a race car. That was hard, because Roger was the last person I wanted to disappoint. He was the owner, growing up, I always wanted to drive for. Knowing whatever was happening, that I was letting him down, was really hard.”
For Allmendinger, the plane ride to Penske’s headquarters outside of Detroit and exit interview was equally difficult. However, despite Allmendinger’s release July 31, Penske has continued to offer the driver support.
“Roger has been amazing,” Allmendinger said. “He’s everything and more that you think of when you think of who Roger Penske is and how he treats people. Even though he had to let me go from the race team, that was a decision I completely understood and was prepared for, because he’s an upstanding guy.
“Even with that, you could tell it was something he didn’t want to, but morally he had to. Although I’m not employed by him anymore, we still talk a lot. He’s still checking up on me and making sure I’m OK. He’s amazing. I couldn’t ask for anything more. Disappointing him will probably be the biggest regret I have in my life.”
Once the results of the “B” sample test came back July 24, Allmendinger made immediate plans to enter NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program in order to be reinstated in the sport.
The decision was not made in haste. After successfully rising through the racing ranks over the past decade, the 2012 season has been Allmendinger’s most disappointing to date — on and off the track. He was 23rd in points at the time of his suspension in what was predicted to be a breakthrough year, but instead, his sixth season was put on hold at 169 races without a Cup win.
“The biggest thing was throughout the season with all the struggles we had, with all the pressure that was (put) on me — more by myself than anybody — all the expectations of moving to Penske and how bad things had gone, it just wasn’t a lot of fun. The pressure to perform and things being out of my control, the points showed that we weren’t where we wanted or needed to be. That took a lot of the fun out of racing.
“I’ve always let racing define me. I’ve always said racing was the most important — to be out there every week and winning. That’s what I defined myself by. You can’t do that. If everything is going well and you’re winning, great. Everything is easy. It’s those bad times that you have to get through and have something to stand by.”
For Allmendinger, this sabbatical has been cathartic. Over the past six years, he feels his career was almost “spinning out of control.” Through the Road to Recovery, he’s learning how to deal with both stress and substance abuse. Allmendinger meets with a counselor each week and can be tested at any time during the process — and has been. He hopes to complete the program by month’s end.
During his time on the sideline, he’s also had time to reflect on his career and why he began racing in the first place.
“I was really struggling mentally trying to figure out what would make it fun again, if I really wanted to do this,” Allmendinger said. “Is this the right way to do this? In this time of being away from racing, it made me realize I love racing. I love being a race car driver. I love being in NASCAR but, more importantly, being able to compete each weekend. That’s what I want to do.
“Sometimes you need time to figure out these things. Now something that I’ve worked for for so long has been taken away from me and I have to be home on weekends. I’m not in a race shop or getting on an airplane to go to a racetrack. That’s really hard. It’s shown me how much I really love this sport and I’ll do whatever it takes to get back.
“But first, I have to figure the rest of my life out so when I get back to racing I’ll be a lot better person — and a better race car driver then I was before. I’ve been through hell, I’ve created my own hell and I’m going through it. I’m still trying to figure out life in general.
When I get back in a race car, I will be able to go out represent myself in a better way. I’ve made some bad judgments and I’m paying the price, but I’m going to fight. I’m going to fight hard to get back.”