AJ Allmendinger’s return to the IZOD IndyCar Series with Team Penske has been confirmed Friday. The 31-year-old native of Los Gatos, Calif. will contest at least two races, at Barber Motorsports Park on April 7, and the Indianapolis 500 on May 26, in the No. 2 IZOD Dallara-Chevrolet.
Rumors had swirled for the better part of a month, since Allmendinger tested for Team Penske at Sebring International Raceway on Feb. 19, that a return to IndyCar was brewing. Allmendinger last raced in open-wheel competition in 2006, winning five times in the Champ Car series.
Allmendinger then departed for NASCAR with Red Bull support prior to 2007. He worked to get his opportunity with Penske Racing before 2012, replacing Kurt Busch in the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge (right), before failing a random drug test at Daytona International Speedway in July. Roger Penske released him from his NASCAR contract but remained in contact with Allmendinger for the rest of the year.
“It is exciting to welcome AJ back to Penske Racing,” Penske said. “He obviously went through a tough time last year but he has done everything he needed to in order to get back to racing at the top level of the sport. We have always believed in AJ and his ability and he deserves this opportunity. We think he will be a strong competitor this season in the IZOD IndyCar Series for Team Penske and we look forward to racing with him in the IZOD car at Barber and at the Indianapolis 500.”
Allmendinger will test at next week’s IndyCar official open test in Barber.
“I’m really looking forward to getting back to my roots and racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series,” said Allmendinger. “I have to thank Roger (Penske), Tim (Cindric) and everyone at Team Penske for this opportunity. I think it’s every driver’s dream to race for Team Penske at the Indy 500 and that experience is going to be incredible. I also have to thank IZOD for their support and for giving me a chance to show what I can do. I definitely intend to make the most of it.”
Further IndyCar races are possible for Allmendinger. Sponsor IZOD, which first entered IndyCar supporting Ryan Hunter-Reay, shifted to Team Penske ahead of the 2011 season with Ryan Briscoe. Briscoe, who won the pole for the 2012 Indianapolis 500 in an IZOD-sponsored car, does not have a full-time ride in IndyCar this year.
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.”