Continued from part 2 Q: AJ, I'm sorry I missed the first five minutes, if you answered this already. But did you have the test at New Smyrna? Was it your first time there, and what was your impression of the racetrack and how did the whole...
Continued from part 2
Q: AJ, I'm sorry I missed the first five minutes, if you answered this already. But did you have the test at New Smyrna? Was it your first time there, and what was your impression of the racetrack and how did the whole test session go? And for Michael, again, I've watched you from afar, being involved in NASCAR, but as far as the progression from Atlantic and wherever it goes from there, where do you feel like you are in your career now and again listening to AJ and your teammates, obviously you've got a lot of respect, where do you see your career going long range, please?
MICHAEL VALIANTE: Coming from Atlantic, the natural progression was always Champ Car. But as I'd say even AJ was coming at the same time, coming up at the same time, where he was fortunate to get hooked up with Carl Russo moving the Atlantic program to Champ Car. And still it wasn't easy. And I'm with him going from Barber Dodge to Atlantic, there was a bit of a period before he was hooked up with RuSport where he wasn't sure where he was going to go. For me coming from karting and racing in Europe and my focus always was to get to Champ Car or possibly to do something in Europe.
But at the time, when I was looking to race in North America, the Players program was still there. So it made more sense to try and go after the Players program since they were supporting all the drivers.
So really after Atlantic, Champ Car was quite shaky. So I had an opportunity with Steve Cameron and Cameron Motorsports who ran the Atlantic program that I raced with. They invited me to do a race and it went well. From that point on I got lots of offers to race in the series.
And I've been happy doing it ever since. And I think especially in the current economy, any driver who can be paid professionally to race cars is fortunate.
And for me, you know, I found a home in Grand-Am and I enjoy the series. I enjoy racing the cars. And really, other than NASCAR, you know, it's hard to find racing that's so close, road racing that's so close.
I mean, IRL their over-the-road races are great. But anytime you get cars that are so highly dependent on aerodynamics, you just can't race that close on road courses.
That being said, I love Formula One, but it's just a different form of racing. What I love about Grand-Am is you can get in these cars and, for the fans, you can go back to any race over the course of last year and you'll see they're all -- there's always battles. There's always racing, and they always have world-class drivers in the series.
So as long as I can provide the speed and the results for teams, hopefully I'll continue to be hired and be part of the series.
AJ ALLMENDINGER: And I think with adding to that, Michael was one of those guys, as we were both coming up, you know, unfortunately open wheel racing, although you needed the talent, it was a lot about luck, too.
And he was just unfortunate, with one of those guys -- that he could have jumped in any Champ Car at that point and went up there and ran up front and won races.
And as Michael said, I was fortunate to get hooked up with a guy that was willing to take his team all the way through Champ Car. And, honestly, it's probably one of the few opportunities I would have had just because there wasn't really any opportunities out there in Champ Car at that point.
So that was a difficult situation for everybody there. But on your question there about New Smyrna. New Smyrna was good to get back in the car. I had been there, I guess you could call it, one time before in 2008 when Red Bull took me out of the car. I went there with Mike Skinner and, honestly, just kind of watched them test the car for two days.
I'd get in about half an hour each day at the end of the day and sit in the seat and try to run some laps but really didn't have a lot of time around that place. So going back there was the first real opportunity I had to see New Smyrna and run a lot of laps. And, you know, I felt like we learned some things, and we could take some things from the test and apply it to the race car at some of the other racetracks.
But, honestly, it was just a chance for me to get back in the Cup car. I've been go-karting and running the Grand-Am car all winter, and just needed to get back in the Cup car before I got to Daytona and it was a good chance for everybody on the Best Buy, on the 43 team there to get a chance to work with each other. Added a couple of key components. A chance for me to get back to work with my crew chief and everybody on the team to get acquainted with each other and get a chance to work before we got to Daytona. So all in all it was a great test.
Q: Who were those key road guys you added?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: We've just added -- honestly, it wasn't anything adding from other teams. It was just kind of mix and matching with the guys that I already had kind of when I was at the 44 team. Both teams, really, before we, when we kind of mixed the teams up in the middle of the season three-quarters of the season through. Couple of those guys that were on my team to start the season that kind of went to Reid's team and a couple of the guys from the 19 crew that kind of switched over to my car.
So it was really mostly still in-house guys that I'd pretty much worked with but just taking the best of everything and putting it together for the season.
Q: AJ, we've talked around this quite a bit. You're part of a long line of drivers who came up ready to step into a long career in open wheel. And open wheel has fallen apart. Is American racing strong even without the strength of an open wheel program here for drivers and for spectators alike?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: Well, that's a tough question, because I think NASCAR racing itself is strong. And there's definitely things that NASCAR needs to do to kind of keep strengthening NASCAR itself.
Obviously, there's been a couple of seasons the last a couple of where maybe race attendance and TV production and viewership is kind of down a little bit, but it's still really strong, especially with this economy.
Still be putting 43 cars in the Sprint Cup Series on the racetrack each weekend and still having great racing. I think last year there was probably some of the best racing. Although it didn't seem like it was at times, there was passes for the lead and more overall passes in general in the series than there have been in a long time.
So NASCAR racing is still strong. Lot of great sponsors out there. I'm fortunate to be paired up with sponsors like Best Buy and Valvoline and PBK and Wicks Filters. There's a lot of sponsors out there in NASCAR racing, and I think that's fairly strong. Although, they do need to do things to strengthen what's going on. I think you're going to see that with adding the spoiler back to the car and just making the racing better overall with rules. So that's going to be a good thing.
But to really answer your question, I do believe there needs to be a strong Sports Car Series. There needs to be a strong open wheel series in the U.S. to stay racing in the general and the U.S. is strong.
I mean, I miss open wheel racing, whether I'm in it or ever going to be in it again, I'm thrilled to be a part of NASCAR and be a part of that. But there still needs to be a great open wheel series. There still needs to be a great Sports Car Series.
And I think Grand-Am in general has the potential to do that. We just need to, whether it's get Grand-Am more with the NASCAR races so the series gets more in the light and shows people how great the racing is, because Grand-Am is such a great series, and I wish I could do more races in Grand-Am just because it's such a great series and more fun to be a part of.
As Michael said, the racing itself is great to be a part of. It's great to watch on TV. I watch all the races on TV even when I'm at the Sprint Cup races. So there's potential there and being paired up with NASCAR is a good thing but we need more sponsors in that series. Maybe a sponsor that doesn't have the money to be in NASCAR, it needs to go to Grand-Am, because there's a lot of things that the series can do for a sponsor and get it out there in the TV limelight, get it out there in the media. The races are fun to go to.
And open wheel-wise we need that series around for U.S. There's a lot of race car drivers that are jobless because the series aren't that strong. And unfortunately it doesn't look like right now that it's getting any stronger. So I don't have the answer of how to fix it. But we need to have a strong open wheel series, a strong Sports Car Series and keep making NASCAR itself stronger.
Q: If you could get the same size check driving open wheel or sports cars, would that be more to your liking than what you're doing now?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: I'm obviously having a ton of fun in NASCAR. It's so tough. You're racing against some of the best drivers throughout the world and especially the best drivers that run on ovals and stock cars.
So I do enjoy it, and I think when you run up front in a Sprint Cup race, and hopefully this year we can, being in the 43 and being a part of Ford racing and the Ford racing family, we can go out there and get that victory. That's something that to win a Sprint Cup Series race will be the biggest thing in my career because I know how hard it's been to get to that point, how hard it is every weekend to run up front and just everything that you have to do during the weekend to finish up front and have a chance to win a race.
So in that sense I am having a lot of fun. But it's always fun to go back to a sports car. And I think Michael would agree with me, the only problem is you have to get out of the race car and give it to another driver. As a race car driver we all have problems with that.
So it's a fun series to be a part of. But I'm happy where I'm at right now. It's fun to be able to go do a Grand-Am race as a secondary thing and enjoy it.
Q: Are the slowest corners more hazardous or the high speed banks more hazardous when mixed in with the GT cars, AJ?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: I don't know. It's pretty hazardous no matter where you are on the racetrack. You just gotta pick and make the moves at the right place and that's what makes the 24-hour such a fun race but so difficult, because you can never let your guard down.
And, I mean, there's times when GT cars kind of moving around on the banking and that makes it tough because the speeds are so much higher and you gotta react a lot quicker on the banking.
But any corner, really, if you put your nose in they don't see you they can chop it off and it's just one little thing that can take you out of having a chance to win the race. So I don't know, Michael. What's your opinion? I think any corner's tough, especially at Daytona.
MICHAEL VALIANTE: It's tough with the GT cars especially since a lot of the guys or not a lot but if a few people who went to the race not having driven the cars that much. So the oval usually it's a bit easier because at least at the driver's meeting they normally tell everyone that the GT cars stay at a lower side of the banking and the prototypes pass on the higher side.
When it gets difficult is sometimes on the slower corners when you're trying to brake them and sometimes they'll make a sudden move especially at night because they didn't see you. So it's easier to avoid them on the slower corners, but on the faster corners, definitely, the chance of something going wrong, if it in fact does, it's usually a pretty big incident.
Q: Back in the day 24-hour races were really endurance races where you set a pace and stuck to it. Nowadays, it's a 24-hour sprint race. How close to ten-tenths or 100 percent do you need to run to have a chance at winning the Rolex 24?
MICHAEL VALIANTE: Well, the thing is you really don't want to set the pace. So it's one of those things with the harder you push the car, you know, the less it's going to last. And often sometimes you can beat people that are chasing you, which seems to have happened every year, that if the leader is going quick, everyone is trying to follow and go quickly as well.
So as a driver, you have to discipline yourself especially if it's in the first hour and make sure you're not running faster than you need to and you're not wearing the car out, which is really the most important thing, because really for the race starts that last half hour for the win, the last hour for the win.
So you're trying to get yourself in a good position, whichever driver ends up in that last hour, give them a car that is in a position to win and where they can push ten-tenths if it comes to that, where, for example, last year there was four cars fighting for the victory in the last hour, and I'm sure they were pushing ten tens to win.
J.J. O'MALLEY: Thank you very much.
-source: nascar grand-am