CART FedEx Championship Series Media Teleconference Presented by WorldCom May 21, 2002 An Interview with AJ Allmendinger Merrill Cain: We switch gears a little bit and welcome in AJ Allmendinger of the Barber Dodge Pro Series, the official...
CART FedEx Championship Series Media Teleconference Presented by WorldCom
May 21, 2002
An Interview with AJ Allmendinger
Merrill Cain: We switch gears a little bit and welcome in AJ Allmendinger of the Barber Dodge Pro Series, the official entry level pro series using CART's ladder system of driver development.
AJ, thanks for participating in today's call.
AJ Allmendinger: Thanks for having me.
Merrill Cain: AJ is a 20-year-old California native who won the season opening Barber Dodge Pro Series at Sebring. His first professional race victory, by the way. In 2001 AJ was one of four top karters that was awarded the Barber CART scholarship which earned him a full season ride in the Formula Dodge National Championship.
As we pointed out earlier, AJ currently leads the Barber Dodge Pro Series points race.
AJ, we're going to open it up for questions. We'll take a run around and see who has some questions for you.
Q You had the opportunity to kind of work up through the CART ladder here. How do you feel about the ladder? Does it have all the right steps now?
AJ Allmendinger: I think the ladder's great. This year they just got the Toyota Atlantic series at the main entry level under the Champ Car Series. So far I've came up through karting, done the national series, now in the Pro Series. I think the ladder system really has all the steps in place that it takes to get the drivers up to where they want to be, and that's in the Champ Car Series.
Right now I don't really see any improvements they could make. They have all the right steps. More and more the entry levels like the National Series and the Pro Series, they're getting more exposure. It's allowing young drivers to get that exposure and move up through the ranks.
Q As a youngster when you started, was there any confusion on your part as to what karting series you should start in? There's so many out there. Should CART take the initiative and try to pull it together and make it a unified CART organization so there's no confusion as to where kids might start?
AJ Allmendinger: Well, I mean, are you just talk about the karting series?
Q Yes, go-karts, yes.
AJ Allmendinger: Really, they have it. That's the Start It Small Program. There's a lot of karting series out there. For CART racing itself in the ladder system, they have the Start It Small Series run by Bryan Herta. I got to first experience that in 2000 when they first started at the race in Vegas. I fortunately got to test the Champ car. So that's the starting series they have in the ladder system.
I think it's a great series. I'm actually still running in it every now and then this year when I get the opportunity. The exposure they get for karting, it's great. So CART itself to have the Start It Small Program be there to start off young drivers to move up through the ranks, I think it's perfect.
Q Did you drive road shifter karts, direct drive karts on your way up?
AJ Allmendinger: I've driven a little bit of direct drive, but since like 1997 I've been driving shifter karts. I think, one, it gets -- still all the Champ car drivers, they drive shifter cars for endurance, to keep in shape. I think it's really great because it does simulate, 125, simulate what a Champ car is like, horsepower-to-weight ratio. I think the shifter car driving, it teaches a lot . For a young driver to start moving up through ranks, obviously you have to change a little bit your driving style once you move up in the cars, but it's a great starting point.
Q Let's talk a little about instruction that you get in the Barber Dodge Pro Series outside of the car. In discussions we've had with Jeremy, there's a lot to be done in terms of instructing you guys on how to handle yourself outside of the car in terms of relationships with your sponsors, with fans, certainly with the media. Can you talk about the kind of instruction you get in that area?
AJ Allmendinger: The Barber Dodge Pro Series, the Pro Series, it's great, because it's not just teaching you how to drive, it's teaching you about all aspects of racing. They really make sure on how you dress, how you act, how you're supposed to talk to your sponsors, the media. They really keep you informed and teach you about stuff like that.
I've learned a lot just in basically the start of my second year and I've learned a lot about how to act in front of everybody, what kind of attitude you have to act in, and basically what you have to do to help try to find sponsors and once you have them to keep them.
Jeremy, I mean, basically everybody knows him from sports car racing and all that. He's one of just many coaches that are there to help you keep that. And CART is a big part of that. To help you try to find sponsors and keep them once you do, I mean, it's huge. So without their help, half of us drivers would be out there just not knowing how to act once we got out of the car.
Q Who is your competition this year in Barber? I know Davy Cook was coming up your tail pipes in Sebring. Who else is out there?
AJ Allmendinger: I mean, there's a lot of guys out there. Obviously Davy the first round. Julio Campos, I had to run against him last year in the National Series. I mean, he's a great driver. Nilton Rissoni, he won the championship I think in 2000. I mean, an exchampion, he's got a lot of knowledge about the cars and can drive them well. Christian Szymczak, Marc Breuers, Leonardo Maia. The list goes on about drivers. Rafael Sperafico, he was quick in Sebring.
Unfortunately for him he had a lot of trouble during qualifying, then I think during the race, too. I would say there's about eight to nine guys that could possibly win a race. There's always those couple of guys that come out of nowhere that you don't expect at some races that do run up front.
As I say, there's like nine or 10 guys that really possibly every race could win it. I mean, that's what makes this series exciting, is you're going into it, you don't know who's going to be the quick one there. There's 10 guys that could come out of nowhere. If you miss a setup, you could be all of a sudden qualified 12th or 13th. In the Barber Dodge Pro Series, if do you that, it's really hard to make that up in a race.
Q Each of you have a coach, but each coach also has more than one driver. How many drivers does each coach have? How do y'all work together? He's got to be impartial between all the drivers he's working with.
AJ Allmendinger: Actually in the Barber Dodge Pro Series, there's a lot of drivers that hire coaches. For me, I don't have a hired coach. I really like working with Barry Waddell. Him and I really get along well. I've kind of adapted to him since last year in the National Series when he was working in that series, too. I've really started to grow a relationship with him, get along with him well. I can interact with him really good on car setup and driving and stuff like that.
But most drivers, they hire driving coaches. Usually from what I've seen, there's about two drivers that hire the same coach. In a way, they're kind of on the same team. I know Davy Cook and Christian Szymczak, they had the same coach. If I'm correct, Tom Fogarty and Marc Breuers have the same coach. In that way they're kind of teammates. There's probably about 10 or 12 drivers that hire coaches, and each of them at most have two drivers.
It's not a big deal about coaches trying to share their times. There's certain coaches like Barry, he's part of the Barber Dodge program. He's not really a coach, but I've started to interact with him well. That's what they're there for.
Merrill Cain: The next Barber Dodge Pro Series event is in Lime Rock Park, Connecticut, on Memorial Day, Monday, May 27th.
AJ, you haven't raced a pro series car there, but you competed in the Formula Dodge National Championship and won a regional race there in 2001. What are you looking forward to from Lime Rock coming up in about a week?
AJ Allmendinger: I'm very excited. Actually after I get off this, I actually go to the airport to leave for the race. I'm just excited. The layoff, two and a half months, has been -- I'm starting to bounce off the walls now I'm so ready to get back in the car.
The track, it's short, it's very tricky. They have concrete patches over the corners. The track, there's not a lot of grip on it. You have to really hit your marks every lap there. Driving the National car last year, I got to feel how much just a little mistake, how that time -- how much time that costs you.
I know qualifying is going to be very important up there. I would say if you're not in the first two rows, you might not have a chance to win the race because passing is so hard in the pro car there. Really the one huge passing place is down the front straightaway. Really coming down the hill in the draft, your car pushes because the downforce gets taken off. I think qualifying is going to be important there.
We don't get a lot of track time. We only get one practice session before we go into the first round of qualifying. You're going to have to really know your car setup right away and make sure you make your first practice session a good one because then qualifying stars, and that's what's going be to be very important for it.
Merrill Cain: We want to point out, the first Barber Dodge Pro Series event that will join the CART FedEx Championship Series will be at Laguna Seca, that's the weekend of June 7th through the 9th.
Q If there was one or two things that you could pinpoint that you have learned in the Barber Dodge Pro Series that you could say, "Okay, if I had not learned this, this is as far as I would ever go," what would it be?
AJ Allmendinger: First off, it's car control. I mean, really, learning how to drive the car smooth, because coming from karting, my driving style really wasn't that smooth. I liked to kind of toss the go-kart around and stuff. Learning how to be smooth in the car is huge importance.
The second thing is really I'm starting to learn the technical part of the car, how to set it up, what it takes to set up a car. Without that, you're definitely not going to go anywhere because it's very important to know about the car and what it takes to set it up.
I've learned a lot the first round at Sebring this year. I think I'm going to carry that and just try to learn more and more about the car. So when I move up to hopefully Atlantics, I can take that in there, then hopefully up to Champ car.
I think that's really what is important, the technical aspect that you learn about the cars, how to set them up. If you don't learn that, you're going to be way behind every other driver that knows how to do that.
Q When we look at your name, the obvious question has to be: AJ, where did that come from?
AJ Allmendinger: I was actually named after AJ Foyt because growing up my dad raced, and that was his hero. It was funny. Before I was born, he kind of told my mom that if I was a boy, my initials had to be AJ. He didn't really care what my actual name stood for, but the initials had to be AJ. I guess I was destined to be a race car driver right from when I was born.
Q If there has been one tough thing in your career to overcome, what has that been?
AJ Allmendinger: Lately I really have had to learn about finding sponsorship and the money aspect. My parents don't have a lot of money, so it's been hard trying to find money. That's huge, just learning what it takes to find the sponsors. Growing up I heard about what it took, how bad race car drivers sometimes had to just walk around and wait. I've learned that real quick now.
So that's been huge. And just learning how to deal with anything that went wrong, like an accident or something, a crash that was my fault, just learning how to right after that get right back in the car and get going again. So that's been very important to me, too.
Q Emotion control?
AJ Allmendinger: Oh, yeah, exactly. Obviously, anybody knows, a race car driver sometimes can lose their sight of what they're trying to achieve. You have an accident or something, I've learned real quick that once you do that, you you've just got to kind of put that in the back of your mind, forget about it, go back in the car and do what you know how to do.
Merrill Cain: AJ, you touched on sponsorship a little bit there. Just looking down some of my notes there, I know you list your mom as your main sponsor. I know you have some silent backers, as well. What is that like? Has to make for some interesting conversation around the dinner table?
AJ Allmendinger: Oh, yeah. I mean, my parents have been my huge backer my whole life. They're in this with me. They're just there with me. I mean, that's huge. Without them, definitely. I mean, a lot of kids can say that. Without their parents, they couldn't do it.
I mean, right now I kind of have for sponsors just the family and a friend that's closely kind of started to watch me, and he's helping me out, then just small local companies that really -- there's no huge companies I can say right now that are sponsoring me. It's just a lot of little stuff.
Right now that's been hard because going into the season I thought I was only going to be racing go-karts. Then all that kind of happened, now I got the funding for the season, now I'm just looking for funding for next season and possibly do some Atlantic testing.
But, yeah, I mean, right now not having a major sponsor, that's kind of hard, but having little sponsors like little companies, especially my parents and the family friend, I mean, without them, you couldn't do it.
Mom makes sure she keeps me in line since she's kind of paying for the racing - and my family friend, too. Can't get them mad at you.
Merrill Cain: Certainly making the most of what you have to work with.
AJ Allmendinger: Exactly.
Q Two and a half months between races is one heck of a long time. You mentioned about the frustration, bouncing off the walls to get back on track. What do you do in that two and a half months?
AJ Allmendinger: I tested the pro car for two or three days. The testing went well at Sebring. That was in April. I did that. Then I learned a lot of stuff about the car. I've been still racing go-karts for Paul Tracy Karting. I've done two or three races for that. I went to Long Beach for the Champ car race to look for sponsors and actually really get to know a lot of the Atlantic teams. Really a lot of PR stuff, running a little bit of go-kart, testing a little bit for the pro series. Other than that, just keeping in shape and working out and just make sure for this weekend, when it finally came, that I'm ready for it.
Q You mentioned driving the Barber car, one thing that you learned was to be more smooth in how you handle the car. I'm wondering if you take that, what you've learned in the Barber car, back into karting, and has that helped you in karting?
AJ Allmendinger: Actually, it has because after Sebring, I ran my first karting race of the year. Learning how to be a little bit more smooth with the car actually really helped me. Like I said, the help with the coaches that I talked about, especially Barry for myself, learning that stuff, it's helped me from where I started in karting now to the Barber Dodge Pro Series. I hope to take that up through the ranks into Toyota Atlantics and into Champ car. It's been great to learn that stuff.
Q The issue of the sponsorship really interests me. How daunting is it for a 20-year-old without a huge trust fund to try to find the kinds of monies that are necessary to advance a career, even to Atlantic or certainly into car CART?
AJ Allmendinger: It's stressful, for one thing. A lot of stress. But you always have to have the attitude -- I have the attitude of not giving up. You know, if you love the sport and you really have the heart for it, you're just going to keep pushing no matter how many times you get turned down and how many people say no. Because once you stop asking, you're never going to find a sponsor. You keep asking, three people say no, it's finally going to happen.
Fortunately for myself, I've got the help for this season and I'm really working hard on stuff already for next year to where hopefully I move into the Toyota Atlantic series. It's hard. It's stressful. But you've just got to have that attitude of never saying no and never quitting. You keep doing that, everything's going to work out. So far it has for me. I'm going to keep that attitude for the rest of my life and for the rest of my career of just never giving up. Hopefully that will take me to the top level that I want to get to.
Q I guess part of your coaching and training has been the ability to take that stress and leave it on the sidelines, not bring it into the car with you when you're racing.
AJ Allmendinger: Oh, exactly. Because I mean once you're in the car, I mean, that's my office. Once I get in the car, everything that -- all the problems, sponsorship-wise, any other problems I'm having, they're gone, and I'm purely focused on my task in hand of winning the race or getting the most out of the practice session that I'm in. Whatever my goal is in the car for that session, that's what I'm focused on.
Once you start letting that sponsorship stuff or any problems you have start getting into the car with you, you're never going to be on your A game. I never let that happen. I always keep my focus. Especially in the Barber Dodge Pro Series, with everything so close and so many good drivers in the series, you lose that focus a little bit, and that 1% of focus, you could be way back in the field. I don't let that happen. Once I get in the car, that's my office, and I get to the business in hand that I'm trying to get to.
Q The issue of coaching and media, give me some anecdotes on how your coaching has helped you get through this last 20 minutes with the media.
AJ Allmendinger: Just the people at Skip Barber, the people in CART that have helped me get to this point now, they let me know.
Q What have they told you about dealing with pushy jerks like me who try to get you to say the one thing they want to hear about how to deal with the media and questions that are thrown at you at the last minute?
AJ Allmendinger: I've been taught always put your best foot forward. Never get frustrated with the media. The media has their job obviously. You're trying to get the answers that you want. They're going to ask the questions. So never get frustrated with them. Always put your best foot forward, always smile. You do that, hopefully everything works out and you can't walk away from that after it happens and be mad at yourself because you looked like an idiot or a jerk when talking to them. Always keep that smile and always keep that best foot forward and it should work out.
Q And stay out of NASCAR.
AJ Allmendinger: Yeah (laughter).
Merrill Cain: AJ, thank you very much for joining us this afternoon. We enjoyed spending time with you today. Obviously, whoever is working with you on the media is doing a good job. You did a great job this afternoon. We wish you best of luck at Lime Rock coming up on Monday, May 27.
AJ Allmendinger: Thank you for having me.
Merrill Cain: Thanks to all who participated in today's call. We wish you a very pleasant afternoon.