Following his suspension and release from Roger Penske’s Sprint Cup team last summer due to failing a drug test, A.J. Allmendinger didn’t fret over whether or not the next opportunity would come. Instead, he focused on himself.
“I had to be happier first before I got into a race car,” he said on Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I always looked at it, if racing is going well, that will make everything else happy. Well, for me, it’s the total opposite. When you get in the race car, you’re totally focused — physically, mentally, everything that goes with it.
“I wasn’t worried about a phone call from anybody, getting a chance. I had to make sure if I got the chance, if and when, I was ready to go. That time period, going through that, is what I focused on. There’s no secrets. Nobody’s perfect in life. Unfortunately, mine was played out on TV over one dumb mistake. But with that mistake, you can do two things: You can keep making those mistakes or learn from them and be a lot better.”
It appears that the American has certainly done the latter, and now he has the opportunity to bring Penske a 16th Indianapolis 500 victory this May in the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet alongside regulars Helio Castroneves and Will Power. Allmendinger will tune up for the ‘500’ by competing in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on April 7 at Barber Motorsports Park.
In addition to getting a chance to repay Penske’s faith in him, Allmendinger will also experience the Month of May for the first time as a driver. He’s made four Brickyard 400 starts at IMS, but he was previously unable to compete in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” as a result of the chaotic open-wheel split between Champ Car, where he raced from 2004-2006, and the Indy Racing League (now the IZOD IndyCar Series).
“I felt like obviously with the split, it took away from the prestige of the Indy 500 because the best of the best weren’t there the whole time,” Allmendinger said. “So for me, honestly, it was like I kind of lost a little bit of the concept of what Indy really was until I got here for the first time in a stock car and pulled out in pit lane and realized, ‘God, this is what Indy is all about,’ coming down the front straightaway for the first time.
“My mind immediately went back to, ‘What’s it like in an IndyCar, coming down at 240 [miles per hour] and turn into Turn 1?'”
It won’t be long before he finds out.
Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens
“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.
Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).
Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.
“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.
Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.
“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.
They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.
For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.
“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.
Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.
“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.
Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.
“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.
“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”
As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.
“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”