May 11, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS — AJ Allmendinger needed help buckling down Saturday.
After trying to calm his nerves by snacking all morning, things got even more uncomfortable for the 31-year-old Indianapolis 500 rookie when he climbed into the cockpit of the No. 2 car — and not just because he was pushing 220 mph.
“The (seat) belts were a little tight,” Allmendinger said after taking his first laps in an IndyCar around the historic Brickyard.
If things go as smoothly as they did on the opening day of practice, the California native might stop the snacking and wind up fitting in with the Indy crowd.
He needed roughly one hour of track time to pass all three phases of his rookie test and posted the fastest lap in rookie orientation at 219.239 mph. Ed Carpenter, the stepson of IndyCar founder Tony George, topped the speed chart at 220.970. American Josef Newgarden and Colombian Carlos Munoz were second and third at 220.920 and 220.720 on an unseasonably cool, breezy and mostly overcast afternoon. Allmendinger’s time was the seventh best on a day less than half of the 33 drivers turned laps.
Practice also was halted for 30 minutes when light showers dampened the 2.5-mile oval shortly after rookie practice ended.
“We had a good race and a good car in the race, but really I have bad memories from last May because we struggled a lot and we weren’t prepared,” Carpenter said. “I think the whole team was really determined to come in prepared this year and they’ve done that.”
Munoz and France’s Tristan Vautier also passed their rookie tests during a two-hour window carved out for the newcomers after last month’s originally scheduled rookie orientation was rained out. A fourth rookie, 21-year-old Conor Daly, an American, was racing in Spain on Saturday and Sunday and won’t arrive at this track until Monday.
That made Allmendinger’s debut one of the Saturday’s biggest draw. Roger Penske’s team didn’t make things any easier for Allmendinger either after giving him a firsthand glimpse of Indy’s scary side.
“(Penske President) Tim Cindric did the worst thing to me and he knew it,” Allmendinger said. “He made me stand right next to the wall and watch Helio (Castroneves) come by the first time and I was like, ‘Oh man.’ My heart started beating really fast. I had to go back and start eating again. I was like, ‘Oh man, that’s fast down the straightaway.’”
Faster than any car Allmendinger has competed in before.
He was a regular on the now-defunct Champ Car circuit from 2004-06, then moved to NASCAR, where he competed from 2007 through last season. There, he drove for two of the biggest names in motorsports, Penske and Richard Petty, but lost his job with Penske Racing last summer after failing a random drug test.
Now he’s trying to jump start his career in IndyCars, where he’s gotten the second chance of a lifetime.
Not only is he again racing for Penske, but he’s also in a car that is funded by the series’ title sponsor, Izod, and using the same number Ryan Briscoe had last season when he won Indy’s pole.
Allmendinger also happens to be named after four-time Indy winner A.J. Foyt and spent Saturday getting radio instructions from Castroneves, a three-time winner who is making his third attempt to become the first foreign-born member of the four-time winners club.
“Helio’s just been telling me how to get around this place, what to expect, the line to run, just to respect the place, everything about this place and what it means and what he went through,” a grateful Allmendinger said. “He could have easily just went and drove the car and said it’s fine and walked away and focused on his program. But he’s here, talking to me and we’re back in the pits and he’s showing me and teaching me and talking to me.”
While Castroneves’ advice helped Allmendinger figure out the track more quickly, it didn’t ease his nerves.
That only comes with experience, so the man who grew up dreaming of the day he would drive an open-wheel car around the speedway in May kept looking for ways to settle down even if it meant eating more comfort food.
“I’ll be honest with you, going down that last straightaway, they kept telling me to take it all in, so when I was trying to take it all in and not scare myself to death, when I went down the back straightaway the first time, I was like, ‘Alright this is pretty sweet, driving a Penske car down the back straightaway in Indy,’” Allmendinger said. “That was an awesome feeling.”