Interview with AJ Allmendinger that will be driving the No. 2 IZOD Team Penske Dallara Chevrolet at the Indianapolis 500 and Barber Motorsports Park.
An interview with: TIM CINDRIC, AJ ALLMENDINGER and MIKE KELLY
THE MODERATOR: Good morning, everybody. Thank you for joining us today at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. You probably all saw the news this morning. We're happy to welcome AJ Allmendinger back onboard with Team Penske.
Tim, we'll start with you. Obviously we've been working on this for a while. Can you give us an overview of how the opportunity arose with AJ and how we were able to pull things together.
TIM CINDRIC: It's always cool to have a new chapter in Roger's book.
When you look at the things that we've been through over the years, this kind of marks another day.
When we looked at this and said, How do we put this together in a short period of time? Mike's help, the support that IZOD put together really in a very short period of discussions, as we looked at how to take advantage of that, we discussed a bit about what about AJ Allmendinger, when you look at the best available guys out there.
Mike, he didn't even hesitate. He said, I'm all in. I think that's a great idea. For us to be able to sit back up here, he and I have been through quite a bit in the last 15 months. To sit back here and have another chapter, another opportunity to win this place is really cool.
THE MODERATOR: AJ, obviously a very exciting day for you. You've been through a lot in the past year. To work your way back here with Penske Racing in this place, talk about looking forward to the Indy 500 as well as Barber coming up.
AJ ALLMENDINGER: For me it's amazing to go through the last year of what happened, get back to this point. For me to be able to run Indy is amazing, but the fact to have Roger Penske, everybody at the Penske organization, Tim, to ask me to come back, still be a part of the family.
Roger told me the first day when I signed with him last year, Once you're in the family, you're always in the family.
As everything occurred to go through that, have Roger not just say those words but act them, not with this, but every week calling me to make sure I'm all right, make sure I'm doing the right things, just more than anything being okay, that to me meant the world.
To have him ask me to come back and ask me to drive one of his IndyCars here at the Speedway, and in general, that means more than anything I could have imagined.
At that point, Roger didn't need to help me if he didn't want to. To have him do that, have Mike and IZOD come aboard and take a shot with me at this, it's fantastic.
I feel excited about it. Just the short amount of time we've spent together, dinner last night, learning about the company, just being a part of it, for me it's kind of a second coming of a dream come true in a lot of different days.
THE MODERATOR: Welcome back. Mike, talk a little bit about having this guy represent IZOD and what you're looking forward to.
MIKE KELLY: We couldn't be happier. We get to race, first off, at the Indy 500. That in and of itself it's amazing. This track is so cool. To race with the Penske organization, to be with Roger, then to support AJ to get a shot at an American drinking the milk, being in the winner's circle, we couldn't be prouder.
Take any one of those three, racing at the Indy 500, be with Roger Penske, Tim and those guys in the office and in the pit, then AJ, he's an interesting cat, an interesting guy, this is going to be a lot of fun. I found out that last night.
AJ ALLMENDINGER: Not sure how to take that (laughter).
MIKE KELLY: It's going to be a lot of fun.
THE MODERATOR: I also want to take the opportunity to welcome all the fans watching on the Internet. Glad you could be a part of this as well.
We'll open it up for questions from the audience.
Q. Will AJ be in all the races? Any conflicts NASCAR-wise?
TIM CINDRIC: Right now we have two IZOD races for AJ, Barber and Indianapolis. Mike, can we have some more?
MIKE KELLY: That's called: Being put on the spot (smiling). We got Barber, we got Indy.
TIM CINDRIC: It's our goal to put together more races. Whether or not they're IZOD races or what have you, it's our goal to expand in whatever way we can.
Q. Tim, does Penske Racing have a drug test policy within its own boundaries?
TIM CINDRIC: We do. I think it was pretty well-documented when we went through this situation last year with AJ, as we looked at it, it was very difficult for us to put the driver in a different scenario than the rest of the expectations of us.
So there was really no choice but to have things play out the way they did. The difference, and some people missed this, AJ has looked at that whole situation, he's gone through what's required of him, and he continues to be I guess selected to be sure that everybody's behind him and he's doing the right things.
Those assurances, there was a timeout there for a while, he's paid his dues, he's assured everybody he's on the right track, and we totally support that.
Q. AJ, when you were sat down initially, did you have any indication that if you follow a certain track, you may get the call back or was the call back a surprise?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: I mean, you speak from Roger himself? As it all went down, I wasn't worried about a call from anybody, honestly. The first things I had to go through was figure out the process and what was expected of me, what I had to do to get back in racing as quick as possible, which is all I wanted to do.
Honestly, through that process, there's a lot of things that for me I had to go through as a person. We all know that anybody that has been around me, I always put the most pressure on myself.
I always have or always will, whether it's the biggest strength of mine or biggest weakness. Last year I was driving for Roger Penske, things weren't going right, I was stressed, I wasn't myself.
First things first, I had to figure out if I wanted to race anymore. Finally for the first time in my life for the first time in 25 years I wasn't racing every weekend.
In a way it was good because I had to figure out if I wanted to continue doing that. I quickly learned as I watched races on TV, I did.
I had to be happier first before I got into a racecar. 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 racecar, 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.
I said it when I started, I'll say it every day, I'm a lot better for it. I'm a lot better mentally and physically for whatever opportunity. No, I wasn't expecting the opportunity to be at the Indy 500 with Roger Penske, but that was something for me I had to work hard on.
Like we all go through, certain days are good, certain days are bad. I feel a lot better for going through it. I can actually look at Tim Cindric, Mike Kelly, Roger Penske in the eye and say, I'm ready to go and I'm going to work hard.
I'm going to do all the right things. Whether that's good enough in the end? I hope so. If not, I can look myself in the mirror and be happy with it.
I went through a lot in the last few months for the good. Certain people may wonder why you get a second opportunity, but for me it's just through hard work and being happier away from the racetrack. When I'm at the racetrack I'm really happy.
Q. AJ, now you're on this big stage, assuming you're going to be able to handle the position, talk about the challenges that this track presents for a person such as yourself.
AJ ALLMENDINGER: I've been told I'm not supposed to hit the brakes when I get down to the end of the straightaway now. I'm so used to that in a stockcar. It's going to be the first challenge, to hold my foot down (laughter).
No, I mean, it's just the challenge of not being in one of these cars in seven years. It's a lot different. When I tested at Sebring, it's a lot different than what I remember. There's a lot of work that goes into that.
Obviously being around this place in its own right it's completely different than anything I'll do. Fortunately enough, there's a lot of great people on this team.
I'm with the best organization to start with, and they have Rick Mears, Helio, just everybody, Roger, everybody that has been a part of this great place for so many years that can help me out.
The good thing about Indy is you get a couple weeks leading up to the race to keep working on that. There's a lot of challenges, not just one little challenge. It's about putting it all together.
Luckily we'll have a test in Barber, the race in Barber. Obviously it's not an oval, but it's getting used to the car. I'll be prepared as much as possible as I can be before I get on the racetrack.
Once I get on here, it's about trying to learn and take it step by step. For me, I'm fortunate enough to have a lot of great people in this organization that will be there to help me.
Q. (No microphone.)
AJ ALLMENDINGER: No, there's no added pressure with the name. As I said, the most pressure comes from myself to go out there and perform. If I didn't think I could be here and have a chance to win this race, I wouldn't waste these guys' time and money. There's no point in doing that.
But I know at the same point there's a lot of work that's going to go into that. There's no pressure except for myself. It's funny, I never met A.J. until the Sebring test. I walked downstairs in the hotel in the morning.
He was sitting there having breakfast. I thought it was a great opportunity to go meet him. A.J. Foyt, my dad told my mom, if it's a boy, the name has to be A.J., if it was a girl he didn't give a crap what the name was.
Mine stands for Anthony James, and A.J. is Anthony Joseph.
Q. AJ, when you were running Champ Car, Franchitti was also in CART, he never paid attention to the Indy 500. He started running here, it became a huge deal. Named for A.J. Foyt, being an open-wheel guy, then you went to NASCAR, did you think you would never run the Indy 500 again?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: I mean, it was tough back in Champ Car because when the two series were split, not having that opportunity to race here, honestly I felt as a kid growing up when I was 10, 11, 12 years old, when it was the heyday of CART, I loved the Indy 500. I thought the best of the best showed up. It was great to see.
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.
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 stockcar 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 and turn into turn one?
I didn't think I'd never have a chance to run there, I just didn't know what the opportunity would be. I've always wanted to be here at the Indy 500. It's still the biggest race I think on this planet.
You look at the crowd when it shows up on race day and just everything that leads up to the Indy 500, what it means, the names that are on the Borg-Warner trophy, the prestige here.
I'd love to be part of it. It's going to be amazing to be a part of it as a driver being introduced, but it would be a lot better, as Mike has told me several times in the last 12 hours, it would be a lot better to win that. I got that. Yeah, I'm real excited about it.
Q. Tim, you obviously sat with Roger and assessed the risk. How big do you think the risk was and why did you take the risk when Penske has the pick of any driver that they would want?
TIM CINDRIC: Well, I'm not sure we have a pick of any driver. I think with regard to the confidence that we have, again, we were pretty close to his whole situation.
When you look at it, yeah, you take calculated risks throughout this business every day. For us it's not really a risk. We look at it and say, If you're sitting in his shoes, you've gone down the road to recovery, the only other road there is is a dead end. There's nothing there.
I feel like Roger has always been a loyal guy, always been somebody that's been there for anybody. There's a lot of stories like this that a lot of people don't know about, a lot more than you think, in terms of giving somebody a second chance, being there for them when they're needed.
When you look at this thing, we talked about it, there's more good that can come out of it than bad.
At the end of the day, the worst thing that can come out of it is we get another driver, in some ways, when you break it down to the very simple aspects of it. But when you look at situations like last night, perfect example.
A friend of mine calls me, a good friend in the business, and he says, Hey, man, I've got somebody that's in the business that has a son. That son is a great athlete. He's got a scholarship. He's at the top of his game in high school sports.
This kid hung out with the wrong buddies, wrong friends, and ended up making a mistake, got tested. Now he's got his whole future on the line, his scholarship, his athletics, everything else.
His parents have talked to me to see if there's a way if he can talk to AJ Allmendinger to see how he can go through that process to see if their son can do that.
To me that was like really cool and brought the whole thing full circle as I'm driving back from Savannah last night about why we're doing this.
Q. AJ, you can see a mistake can be humbling. Racecar driving itself will make you humble. Have you discussed the mistake you made with some of your colleagues, friends, drivers? Could you share with us some advice that someone may have given you?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: I mean, as you said, the sport will always humble you. Most of the time you'll have more downs than ups. It's the ups that make the downs worth it.
When it all happened, I feel like for a while I kind of closed off because I was trying to figure it out myself. The thing that really helped was I had a lot of family and friends that were there, my parents, people like Roger, that were close to me that helped me get through it.
A lot that helped me get through it was the people I was racing against at that time in NASCAR, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart. Those guys reached out to me and saw how I was, just told me advice, whether it was just be honest, tell the truth, do what you have to do, or just events that they went through.
Whether people have seen or haven't seen behind the scenes the stuff they went through, the fact that they trusted me more than anything.
Guys like Ryan Hunter-Reay, for instance, I hadn't talked to him much in the past because obviously our paths were going down a different way. He reached out to me.
A guy like Will Power, Helio, all those guys, even guys I hadn't spoke to a lot that reached out. There was a lot of support there from them. That helped me get through it.
Family and friends are obviously really important in life. But at the same point when you're racing against people at over 200 miles per hour, those are the ones that have to trust you.
If they don't trust you to start with, you're not going to be back in the sport or not. They're going to be the ones that determine whether they want you there or not.
It was those people that meant so much because they trusted me and they said, Just do what you do, get back. Do whatever it is that you have to do, whatever the process is, and get back as quick as possible.
That to me has meant more than anything. As Tim talked about, with a situation like that, I'm not scared to talk about it. I think sometimes people get scared to bring it up and discuss it or anything like that, or people try to shy away from it.
It's happened. It's out there in the press. Nothing's going to change about what was said in the past, what people are going to determine in the future.
I learned through all of this, all you can do is work on yourself. If you're happy with yourself, in certain ways it doesn't matter what anybody else thinks.
I'm always open to talk about it, whether it's people that are going through it, people that made mistakes, people that just want to discuss it, it's something to be open about, something to be open from, it's life.
Q. Mike, I know you're a huge race fan. Several years ago IZOD made a huge commitment to this series. It's my understanding this is the last year of that contract. Moving forward, have there been discussions internally about where to take this thing?
MIKE KELLY: It's our sixth year. We're proud of the series. I'm a huge fan. IZOD is a fan of the sport. It's an amazing product. What goes on here, the 500 alone.
But each of these races, I don't know how many there are this year exactly. Each of the races, the road courses, ovals. Today is about AJ, our relationship with Penske. We're not here to talk about our deal with the league.
But we're supportive of everything that's going on here, especially this idea. The idea of getting an American in the winner's circle at the Indy 500 is great for the sport, great for the league.
What's good for the league is good for us because we've got our name on it.
Q. Tim, you said initially early on that you have your own testing program. What did you say when NASCAR says, Uh-oh, the red flag is up?
TIM CINDRIC: Maybe you misunderstood in terms of the drivers and that type of thing. They have a program that's right in parallel, if not more so, than what we have to do as employers.
In that case, Roger was actually on an airplane on his way back from Europe. Roger knows I only call him when I need something. I usually wait for him to call me.
If I'm calling him, it's pretty cool, because he usually takes my call because I don't call him very often. He'll check in daily for the most part.
The process to do that, you have to go through air traffic control, so forth, then he calls you. I just talked to him 30 minutes ago. He had taken off, was on his way back from Europe.
Anyway, I get ahold of him. So what did you forget last time we talked? This probably isn't the way you want to come back from your vacation, but in the next couple hours we have to decide who is going in this car at Daytona, went through the situation.
His response was, Hey, nothing I can do about it from here so figure out the next steps. That was kind of how that all took place.
With regard to the drivers, the sanctioning bodies, you have such a stringent program for them, one that's very random, that to do that across the masses isn't really practical. We rely on the sanctioning bodies a lot relative to the drivers.
Q. Mike, I applaud your decision to back AJ. Top flight American drivers are an endangered species. AJ, did the potential accelerate to come back to IndyCar, that you might like to go back to open-wheel again?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: I always told Roger, I told him every day, if he wants me to drive one of his racecars, I'm not going to be dumb and say no.
We were focused on the Cup program, trying to go out there and win races. At that point the year hadn't started off very well. What was tough was I felt like we were actually making headway right before it all happened, starting to have some of our better runs.
Once something like that happens, for me I'm open to all opportunities. At that point last year Roger asked me to come to Fontana as a guest of his and come back to an IndyCar race, see what it was all about. At that point the championship was on the line.
It had been a great season for IndyCar in general when it came to the racing aspect of it. For me I have a lot of great friends still in IndyCar, so I keep up with it every weekend I can, every race they have.
It was just an opportunity to show up and say, What's out there? What opportunities might there be? What chances are there going to be, whether it's IndyCar, NASCAR, GRAND-AM, whatever?
I've learned quickly in life, you don't say no to anything. You kind of look at all options and see what is best in life. For me it's just been about finding out what that opportunity is, whether it's IndyCar or NASCAR.
Be competitive, have chances to win races and just enjoy it, just have fun being in a racecar no matter what it is.
Did I think it would lead to this? I didn't know. Generally I just take every day as it comes now. I'm not surprised by anything. As I said, more than anything, I'm just trying to make myself ready, whatever those chances are.
Be physically, mentally, emotionally ready to go. When I get a call to go in a racecar, I can know I'm 100% committed to it. That's what I feel like now.
The fortunate thing is at least my phone has kept ringing. It hasn't been silent. Ring, somebody call me. There's not enough adjectives to say what I feel now.
Amazing, excited, nervous, just pumped up to have this chance, to be back with Roger and the Penske family, to have IZOD take a chance and say they want to be a part of me and they want me to be a part of them.
So I'm ready to go. Anything better would be maybe get some more golf clothes. I'm a huge golfer, too. Just throwing that out. Checking out their stuff on the course. If I have to represent them out there, too, I will.
Just saying, whatever you need. I think you have a couple of good golfers you represent. One lives by me. So if you want to throw that out there. We could do some TV stuff, whatever you want. Just throwing it out there, thinking ahead (smiling).
Q. AJ, compare what you'll feel the day you'll go out on the track in an IndyCar compared to a stockcar. Roger expects a lot from his drivers beyond most owners. Is that an added pressure or do you accept that?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: I mean, the first part of that question, I'm not going to lie, I'm going to be nervous as hell rolling out. It was the same way when I was in a stockcar. For me, when I haven't done something before, I have those nerves.
I think it's a good thing. If I wasn't nervous, I wouldn't care.
The anticipation of rolling out there first day, rookie orientation, it's going to be fun and nerve-wracking, so many emotions wrapped together at the same time. It's going to take a few laps to get used to it.
Once I get used to it, it's down to business. With your second question, Roger, yeah, he demands a lot from his drivers, but he's one of the easiest guys to work for, which surprised me last year.
I was so stressed out at the beginning of the year, things weren't going right, we were having mechanical issues. He was going to be on me saying, We got to go out there and do it this weekend.
He was at ease more than anybody else. It takes time, don't worry about it, things will come together, you're doing fine, just relax.
TIM CINDRIC: The drivers, they got it easy.
AJ ALLMENDINGER: He might have been in the next room with Tim going, What the hell is he doing out there? Get on him.
TIM CINDRIC: Free pass.
AJ ALLMENDINGER: No, he's a great guy to work for.
THE MODERATOR: Gentlemen, thank you very much for your time. Very excited about the upcoming season. Happy to welcome AJ, to the team.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway