This Week in Ford Racing August 10, 2004 Champ Car World Series A.J. Almendinger, driver of the No. 10 RuSPORT Lola, has established himself as one of the top rookie drivers in the Champ Car World Series this season. The defending Atlantic ...
This Week in Ford Racing
August 10, 2004
Champ Car World Series
A.J. Almendinger, driver of the No. 10 RuSPORT Lola, has established himself as one of the top rookie drivers in the Champ Car World Series this season. The defending Atlantic champion and 2002 Barber Dodge champion, Almendinger made the jump to Champ Car with RuSPORT, which is also campaigning its first Champ Car season. Currently leading the Rookie-of-the-Year standings and ninth overall in the championship, Almendinger talks about making the jump from Atlantics, the relationship he has with teammate Michel Jourdain, Jr., and handicaps the 2004 Champ Car title race.
A.J. ALMENDINGER - No. 10 RuSPORT Lola
CAN YOU GIVE ME A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF YOUR SEASON TO THIS POINT? "Well, it's been good, but it's been difficult more times than not. I think Champ Car is a tough series, but it's even tougher than I ever expected. I knew it was going to be tough when I started, but this is far more than I ever expected. I've been very pleased with the team's performance, how well the crew is working on how we're all coming together, but I've been frustrated on my performance a little bit, particularly the rookie mistakes that I've made. I know they're rookie mistakes, but I strive for perfection and when I don't get it I'm not happy about it. It's been great in some areas and very difficult in others, and I think it's just a typical season as a rookie, although it's been a little bit tougher I think with a rookie team. I guess I'm pleased, but I'm not satisfied."
WHAT WERE YOUR EXPECTATIONS COMING INTO THE SEASON AND HAVE YOU MET THOSE EXPECTATIONS? "I came in hoping for us to keep getting better after each race and I think we're doing that, I wanted some podium finishes, I wanted to be contending for race victories by the end of the year and I wanted to win rookie of the year, especially against Justin (Wilson) because he's not a true rookie in the sense that he came over from Formula One, so I wanted beat him because if I do then I really accomplished something this year, and finally I wanted to finish fifth or sixth in the championship. And so far, we've scored one podium, which was great, but I think we could've had a couple of more if I hadn't made so many mistakes and that's been a bit frustrating. It's been tough. You know, you have great weekends where the car is amazing and then the next weekend it's a struggle. Honestly, I think the team has met my expectations so far, but I haven't."
ALTHOUGH YOU'VE GOT SOME VETERAN CREW MEMBERS WORKING WITH YOU, HOW DIFFICULT HAS IT BEEN TO COMPETE AS A ROOKIE IN THIS SERIES WITH A ROOKIE TEAM? "As I said, it's been tough because we started out being just a one car team and with Michel (Jourdain) coming on board, it was great for me to have him as a teammate, but it was tough for the team to get everything ready. But we keep making progress every weekend and that's been good. Anything you can take to get ideas to learn from the guys that have been around the block, that's definitely helped us. It's been a learning experience and we knew this season would be a difficult one. And really, what we wanted to do is have a lot of notes going into next year so we can really contend and be upfront next year. But we've been up there a lot more than people thought we would be this year and it really comes back to we could be farther up there in points had I not made some of the little mistakes."
WHAT KIND OF TEAMMATE HAS MICHEL (JOURDAIN) BEEN FOR YOU? "He's been great. He's been not only a great teammate on the track, but just as good a friend or even better off of it. He's inspired a lot of confidence in me because I'm very hard on myself when I make mistakes and he pumps me right back up by saying that he believes in me, which means a lot coming from a guy with the experience and talent that he has. Honestly, there's no other teammate that I'd rather have than Michel and that means a lot."
DO YOU HAVE AN OPEN RELATIONSHIP WHEREBY YOU EXCHANGE DATA AND OPENLY TALK ABOUT SETUPS AND STRATEGY OR ARE YOU MORE PRIVATE WITH WHAT EACH OTHER IS DOING AT THE TRACK? "We definitely share everything because we know how difficult this is and the further we can move up on the grid together the better we are. Of course you want to beat your teammate and that's great, but there's nothing really satisfying about beating him when you're both ninth and 10th, so we share information. We have a very good relationship, we joke around and have fun, and it's been great. He's a great person to have around with this experience and his attitude, and he's not always thinking of himself and he's all about making this team the best and helping to make me the best. Hopefully at the end of the year because he's helped me so much he can say that I helped make him a better race car driver too, I think we're doing that."
IS THERE ANYTHING THAT REALLY CAUGHT YOU OFF GUARD WHEN YOU MADE THE JUMP TO CHAMP CAR? "Honestly, I'd have to say it's the competition. The way I look at it, I'm the first to tell you that I had so much respect for these guys before I ever turned a wheel in this series. I had a lot of respect for the drivers and the teams, and I never came in here saying that I've won the last two championships in Barber Dodge and Atlantics and I'm going to come in here and dominate. I know these guys are amazing drivers and that's why they're at this level, and this has been 10 times harder than I ever expected. I never expected to come in and win right away, but if you're not on your game during qualifying or your car's setup is a little bit off, you're going to be 13th or way down the grid wondering what happened. And you don't just drive to the front from 13th and blow by people in Champ Cars; it's very difficult. What these guys can do in a qualifying lap to get everything out of the car I'm still trying to learn, and it's amazing. That's what it really comes down to. The talent in this series is remarkable and that's really what it boils down to."
SOME OF THE FEEDER SERIES ARE COMPETITIVE, BUT SOMETIMES THE ENTIRE 18-CAR CHAMP CAR GRID IS SEPARATED BY LESS THAN A SECOND. "Yeah, exactly. And the thing is it's not even the time difference. You go down the list of drivers on the grid and I would say that easily the top 14 drivers are capable of winning a Champ Car race on any given weekend. You take teams like Forsythe and Newman/Haas, which are at the front every weekend and that's amazing because of how tough it is, but you look at a guy like (Jimmy) Vasser who was fast this weekend (at Road America) but struggled in Vancouver and qualified 16th. You can't have an off weekend in this series or you're going to suffer. We were pretty fast in Vancouver and were just a little bit off and were struggling to stay in the top 10. I mean, there are a lot of things that are difficult. Learning the car, learning to drive the car at the limit, running for two hours, that's been difficult too, but just the level of competition is higher than I ever expected."
WITH RUSPORT BEING LOCATED IN DENVER, THIS WEEKEND'S RACE IS OBVIOUSLY A BIG ONE FOR YOU. "Oh yeah, there's going to be a lot of pressure on us to perform at our highest level, but in another way it's just like any other race. I don't look at Denver on our schedule and think that it's going to mean more to me than the other ones, but it's definitely going to be important for us to do well and I think we will do well."
LOOK INTO YOUR CRYSTAL BALL AND TELL ME WHAT THE REST OF THE SEASON HOLDS FOR YOU. "I think if we can keep pushing and getting better each weekend I think we have a really good shot to slowly move up the grid and hopefully score another podium or two. It's going to be difficult to win a race, but if we keep making progress then by the end of the year I think we'll have a very good shot of being up there. It's going to be difficult and everything is going to have to fall into place for us to win a race, but I think as long as we put ourselves in that position than anything is possible."
CAN YOU GO OUT ON A LIMB FOR ME AND HANDICAP THE CHAMPIONSHIP RACE? "Oh man, for me or for the series? (LAUGHING) I don't think we have a shot right now and I'll be honest, I don't think anybody has a shot right now except for Sebastien (Bourdais). Unless something starts happening, I mean, it's going to take mechanical failures to knock him out if anybody else is going to make a run at it. Even when things go wrong for him like last weekend at Road America, he still came out with a third-place finish while the guys around him didn't finish well. Seriously, it's going to take a lot of mechanical failures or a lot of crashes to keep him from winning the championship because he's not going to knock himself out. I mean I don't see him qualifying 10th and finishing eighth on a regular basis because the team is too good and he's too quick. But after that, I think the race for second through 12th is going to be interesting because there's only 60 points that separate everybody. There's going to be a lot of shuffling going on between those 10 or 11 guys, and that race is going to be great to watch."