Driver Diary - AJ Allmendinger, series winner

Driver Diary: Allmendinger's Championship Weekend at Mid Ohio. A.J. Allmendinger of Hollister, California began the 2002 Barber Dodge Pro Series season as a contender, and ended it as the Champion. Allmendinger narrowly missed out on winning the...

Driver Diary: Allmendinger's Championship Weekend at Mid Ohio.

A.J. Allmendinger of Hollister, California began the 2002 Barber Dodge Pro Series season as a contender, and ended it as the Champion. Allmendinger narrowly missed out on winning the Skip Barber Formula Dodge National Championship and then missed out again in the off-season when he was outpaced by Leo Maia in the Barber-CART Big Scholarship Run Off. A tour of driving in the New Zealand Formula Ford Championship helped the young driver better understand how to approach racing each weekend, and specifically, to understand how to make a car set up work for him. That experience paid dividends when it came to working with the Barber Dodge engineering staff and Barber Dodge Pro Series Head Driving Coach, Barry Waddell. With more competition miles under his belt, Allmendinger was better positioned to harness Waddells knowledge to get the most out of the Pro Series cars and out of himself. He won the first race of the season after coming out on top of a thrilling race-long battle with Davy Cook to start the season with the points lead, a spot he would never relinquish. He took six victories and four poles on his way to becoming the 2002 Champion.

Allmendinger kept a diary during the Mid-Ohio weekend that saw him lock the title up, and the following are the young drivers recollections of that weekend.

Round eight of the 2002 Barber Dodge Pro Series Championship was held at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio. After having won five of the first seven rounds of the championship, I was heading into round eight with the possibility of clinching the championship in my rookie season. I was confident heading into the weekend since I had raced at Mid Ohio before in the Barber Dodge car last year. It wasnt a very good weekend, since I didnt do well in qualifying and ended up in the gravel during the race trying to overdrive the car.

I spent the previous weekend at Mount Tremblant at the Skip Barber National Championship coaching Burt Frisselle. It was a good weekend, since I had a chance to relax a bit since I wasnt actually racing. I have to admit, though, that during those races, I am almost as serious as when I am in the car, since part of me is out there racing with him. As soon as the weekend was over, I started thinking about Mid-Ohio and the championship and getting myself into the mindset of making it(the champsionship) happen.

My mindset was similar going into the weekend to what it has been all year, to go in and win the race, but with the championship on the table, I had to keep that in mind as well. I get a little grumpy the week before a race, just trying to concentrate on what I need to do in the car. My parents dont get annoyed by it anymore since they know what I am trying to do. I try not to be like that all weekend, since its good to sit around and worry the whole time, but its still important to clear out all the distractions and concentrate for the half hour before I get into a car.

Mid-Ohio is a very difficult, technical racetrack with a lot of elevation changes and blindingly fast corners. We had a test day on Thursday, so I knew I would have some opportunity to try a few different car set-ups for the weekend.

Thursday was warm and humid. The first of two thirty-minute testing sessions began at 10:15 a.m. The track was slippery, not having a lot of rubber down on the track made the first few laps difficult. I worked up to speed early in the session, finding out that my car had a bit of oversteer. I made some bar adjustments during the session and learned a lot of things about the track. I set fastest lap of the session at a 1:25.76. Making a couple of more changes before the second of two thirty-minute sessions, we went back out at 1:00 p.m. The track had a little bit more grip in it, but the warmer temperatures of the afternoon had made the track just as slick. The changes that I had made did not work as well early in the session. I made a pit-stop midway through the session to make some adjustments. Making the car better I set second fast lap of the session at a 1:25.79, a tenth off of Rafael Sperafico. It was good to get some time in on the track and try some set-ups, and it was good to be at the top of the sheets, or near it, but I knew that we would be dealing with a different track come Friday since the Champ Cars would be laying down a whole new layer of rubber.

Friday was also a warm day and very humid. We got on track at 11:45 a.m. for a 40-minute practice session. The track had a lot of grip from the Champ Cars, who practiced right before we did. I made a variety of changes to get more grip to both ends of the car. The rubber from the champ cars made the track very difficult to get a hold of. I ended the session second quickest with a lap of 1:24.47, only .05 of off Dan Di Leo. I was heading into qualifying confident about my car set-up.

Our qualifying session would be tricky though. After five minutes, the session was black flagged due to oil on the track. After a lengthy clean upl, I knew that we would only have 14 minutes left of qualifying. The track was very greasy, I had the car right on the edge during the whole session trying to get the most out of the car. Using every inch of the track, I was able to set the fastest lap of the qualifying session with three minutes left at a lap of 1:24.62. This would guarantee me a front row starting spot heading into Saturdays qualifying session and earn myself another championship point, moving me closer to getting the title.

On Saturday, we only had one on-track session, a half-hour qualifying at 9:15 a.m. Even though it was early, it was already pretty warm and humid again. I thought the times would be much quicker than Fridays session. The track was very greasy though, making it hard to get grip in the tires. I was on the ragged edge trying to get that extra point towards trying the clinch the championship. Using all of the racetrack and even parts of the curbing, I made a mistake into turn11, getting my left rear tire over the curbing onto the grass inevitably spinning my car into the inside wall. The right front of the car was torn off in the wreck, ending my qualifying session and giving my crew some big work to take car of on my car. I would still start on the outside of the front row next to Christian Szymczak because of qualifying on pole during Fridays qualifying. I went out to dinner with Burt Frisselle with his mechanic Raj and my mechanic Ken. I felt bad about having crashed my car and having Ken have to fix it. We had a good dinner and it helped to take my mind off the race for at least a little while. When we got back to the hotel,we stayed up for a while hanging around and watching tv. I dont try and get to bed early anymore on race weekends, since thinking about the race tends to keep me from sleeping unless I am dead tired, so now I just hang out until later at night and then fall asleep.

I intended to use Sundays fifteen-minute warm-up session to test my car out and see if it still had the same handling characteristics it did before the incident in qualifying. Right away out of the pits I got up to speed to see what the car had. With track conditions being very different because of the three hour Grand Am Cup race late Saturday, the car had a lot of oversteer in many of the corners. After a few adjustments in the pits, the car handled a little better, but I would need to make some changes before the forty-minute race.

I was pretty nervous for the start of the race, especially after what had happened on Saturday. I knew what I had to do to win the 2002 Barber Dodge Pro Series Championship and that was to finish third or higher. Starting on the back straightaway at Mid-Ohio makes the first corner very exciting and hectic. I didnt want to have an accident. In the first couple of laps, I had a fierce battle with Rafael Sperafico for the fourth position. We traded the position back and forth, with him making a move on me in the inside into turn-7 and me retaking the position back on the outside of turn-8t. About midway through the race I settled into fifth position with the top- eight cars nose to gearbox. With Marc Breuers taking the lead at the halfway point, I knew that I had to finish third to clinch the championship. Heading into turn-11 I narrowly avoided the spinning third-place car of Julio Campos. A lap later the caution flag came out for the incident. With the field bunched back up, I knew it would be my best opportunity for passing. On the restart, Sperafico attempted to take the lead from Breuers heading into turn-7. Third place, Christian Szymczak tried to go around the outside of Sperafico when he had to checkup going into turn-8. I tucked up under Rafaels gearbox. Christian ran high out of the turn jumping over the curb, running through the grass and barely missing me. Now in third, I knew I was in the perfect position to clinch my first professional championship. The white flag flew and there was only one lap left to make no mistakes.

No last lap moves were attempted and as I crossed the line to finish third with my arm in the air, I knew a year of hard work and a lot of support from everyone had culminated into a championship.I wasnt actually sure that I had secured the title until after I got back to the pits and my mechanic Ken was right there when I got out of the car told me. I took the cool down lap to collect my emotions. I pulled into the pits and as always my mechanic Ken was the first one there to congratulate me as I jumped out of the car. Spraying the podium champagne never felt as good as it did at that moment. I was so relieved to win the title, and so happy with the race result, I was in my own little world for the first 20 minutes after the race ended. It was every emotion all at once combined with all the adrenaline that gets going for me in the race car.

This championship year could have never been possible with out the support of the Barber Dodge Pro Series, CART, the Barber Dodge mechanics and especially my mechanic Ken Davison. I give so much credit to my coach Barry Waddell for all the help technically and driving he gave me during the season. Now I look forward to seeing what the future holds for me in the 2003 season. I will see you at the races.

A.J. Allmendinger

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Series Barber Pro
Drivers Christian Szymczak , Julio Campos , A.J. Allmendinger , Rafael Sperafico , Burt Frisselle , Skip Barber , Barry Waddell , Ken Davis