Allmendinger finally steps in spotlight

AJ Allmendinger bounces into the Reel Works Studio for his Pennzoil shoot a few minutes after 9.

He has no trouble finding the production site, since the distance is less than a pitching wedge across Hamilton Street from one of his investments, "Small Bar," in the NC Music Factory section of the city.

The "Dinger" has all the energy of Tigger and the enthusiasm to match.

He’ll need it for the day’s laundry list of preseason sponsor requirements for NASCAR drivers. He’ll be posed, prodded and expected to produce perfect lines extolling such virtues as, "It’s not just any motor oil, it’s Pennzoil," until the director is satisfied.

But the 30-year-old Los Gatos, Calif., native doesn’t mind. After five years of battling the odds, Allmendinger’s efforts finally have paid off. This year, he’ll drive for Roger Penske.

And, yes, there still are times he can’t believe this is happening.

"You work so hard to get to this point, and my parents have sacrificed so much, to me it’s almost impossible to describe how I feel," said the driver who is not characteristically short on words.

"To think that I have driven for the King, Richard Petty, and Roger Penske. For a kid from California trying to make it on his own, with my parents mortgaging their house just so I could race, it’s unbelievable.

"My mother used to ask me, ‘Do you want rubber on your feet or rubber on the go-kart?’ I’d always choose tires over new shoes. So, I don’t think I’ve begun to grasp how big this is. I know it’s big, but I’d rather win for (Penske) — and then have to think about it."

First up for Dinger is a spot with two Wounded Warriors for Pennzoil’s upcoming "Getting our Freedom Back" program in partnership with the Paralyzed Veterans of America. His compassion for the soldiers — Anthony Radetic and Noah Currier — is genuine.

Allmendinger tackles Pennzoil’s "For the Love of Cars" campaign — and nails it with an adjustment of the teleprompter and coaching from a veteran producer from NASCAR Media Group. He slows his delivery and concludes with, "That one’s for the ladies."

What’s his secret?

"Perfect hair, I have it. Good tan, blue eyes," he said with a smile.

But it’s during a question-and-answer session, to be used internally for Pennzoil corporate, that Allmendinger’s humility shines through.

Although he loves to play golf and basketball, Allmendinger explains how his passion for racing developed by watching his father, Greg, who was a carpet layer during the week and hobby racer on the weekends.

He remembers watching his dad and his friends gather at the racetrack on the weekends. It amazed Allmendinger how his dad could battle his buddies on the track, come to the verge of fisticuffs, then share beers at the end of the night. His father’s range of emotions — whether he won or lost — had a dramatic effect on the youngster. Not surprisingly, Greg Allmendinger named his son after A.J. Foyt.

Then the focus shifted to Allmendinger, who started racing quarter-midgets at 8. He moved up to go-karts at 11 and still races karts to this day. Allmendinger loved the speed, but it was his ability "to control something that was just about out of control" that attracted him to racing the most.

The family would pile into an old Chevy truck to tracks in California and Nevada. While Allmendinger recalls those experiences, he said, "Those trips were fun, but all that time I was thinking, ‘I want to be a big-time race-car driver.’ "

His father had fueled those dreams with the legend of Jeff Gordon — another California kid from just an hour up the road in Vallejo — who raced karts, but already had made it to the big time.

"My dad always said he lived through me because he never got the opportunity — or the money — to race," Allmendinger said.

During a break, Allmendinger is reminded how his luck has changed when someone from the motorsports industry drops by to congratulate him on his recent win in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

"Thanks. It’s just nice to have won something," Allmendinger said, as if needing to reassure himself. His five-year road in NASCAR to drive for one of the most successful owners in motorsports hit a few bumps along the way.

At 20, Allmendinger competed in the New Zealand Formula Ford Championship and won the Barber Dodge Pro Series title. In 2003, he took the Champ Car Atlantic Championship and graduated the following season to Champ Car. He raced for RuSPORT for two seasons but, four races into the third year, left to drive for Gerry Forsythe.

In his first start for Forsythe, Allmendinger started on the front row at Portland and won the race. Fittingly enough, the victory came on Father’s Day. That was the first time he saw his own father cry.

"Here’s this big, strong guy, and I thought nothing could faze him," Allmendinger said. "To see him cry was amazing."

The wins kept coming. At the next race in Cleveland, Allmendinger won from the pole. He kept the streak going at Toronto from the front of the grid again. In all, he won five of his first eight races with Forsythe.

Then NASCAR came calling. Toward the end of the 2006 season, Allmendinger signed on to drive for the new Red Bull Racing effort with Toyota in the Sprint Cup Series. He dabbled in the Truck Series with Bill Davis Racing in order to be approved for stock car’s top tour. He posted a modest 13th-place finish at New Hampshire, but in his next start at Talladega, Allmendinger finished fifth behind winner Mark Martin and Truck champions Mike Skinner, Ted Musgrave and Todd Bodine.

At Atlanta, Allmendinger failed to qualify for his first Sprint Cup race. However, he put the truck on the front row and passed Skinner for the lead seven laps later before an altercation with Joe Nemechek ended his day on Lap 13.

In 2007, the Red Bull Racing NASCAR experiment began. It was the first season for Red Bull, the first season for Toyota in Cup and the first season for Allmendinger. By all accounts, the program was a failure.

Both cars missed the Daytona 500 and Allmendinger failed to qualify for the first five races.

Allmendinger was a NASCAR rookie in every sense of the word, but teammate Brian Vickers, who had three full seasons in Cup before moving to RBR, qualified for 23 of 36 races that year. Allmendinger made 17.

Twenty-nine races into the 2008 season, RBR replaced Allmendinger with Scott Speed and started the process all over again.

Allemendinger landed at Gillett Evernham Motorsports for the balance of the year. In the offseason, the operation was renamed Richard Petty Motorsports. Allmendinger appeared to have found stability in the No. 43 Dodge, but the ownership group headed by George Gillett proved otherwise. That season alone, Dinger experienced a manufacturer change from Dodge to Ford with three races remaining and his crew chief Sammy Johns was replaced by Mike Shiplett midway through the year.

In 2010, RPM came crashing down. Gillett defaulted on $90 million in bank loans. Teammate Kasey Kahne announced he was moving to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, but left before season’s end amid the company’s inability to pay its bills. At the end of November, a new partnership including Petty bought the debt and reemerged as a two-car team with Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose added to the driving roster.

Under a new ownership group, Allmendinger’s situation became strained again.

Although Dinger found his best partnership to date when crew chief Greg Erwin came on board before Indy in July, machinations behind the scenes with sponsor Best Buy caused uncertainty in the ranks.

However, the sponsor’s eventual departure to Roush Fenway Racing offered Allmendinger an out, and the unimaginable: The opportunity to drive for Roger Penske.

Despite the adversity Allmendinger faced, he still made steady progress. And Penske noticed.

During lunch break, Allmendinger takes a minute to reflect on the Captain. Coming through the open wheel ranks, Dinger said, Penske was "the pinnacle," the one owner every driver aspired to race for during their career.

So, what has he learned about his new boss over the last two months?

"I always knew he was on," Allmendinger said of Penske. "But the dude is spot on.

"People forget that racing is such a small part of what he does. All the businesses he has, his schedule and how he keeps up with everything, is just unbelievable. His energy is absolutely amazing.

"I’d love to say I finished my career with Roger Penske. I know it’s a lofty goal, but I’d love to do it."

For now, it’s about performing for the sponsors. There still are standups, still shots and in-house video to shoot for Walmart over the next three hours. Since inking his deal with Penske, the activation side of his job has quadrupled. Nevertheless, it’s a small price to pay for finally achieving his true shot at the big time.

"My whole mind right now is centered on what a great opportunity this is," Allmendinger said. "I’ve been so busy with so much on the sponsor side of things I haven’t really had time to think about racing. I thought Best Buy did a lot of things, but for what Shell/Pennzoil and AAA have done for me, I’m not sure I’m like even ready for it all. But I know, ‘OK, it’s happening.’

"My full focus is on winning, because I know I’m going to handle the off track responsibilities right. I’m not going to worry about the past guy or what guys have done to mess it up. That, to me, is natural, it’s who I am. I’m worried about that. I have to make it happen on the racetrack. If I do, then I can be here a long time."