A winter test day at Sebring International Raceway was meant to be routine, the first test of the year for IZOD IndyCar Series teams as they continue preparations for the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 24.
But having A.J. Allmendinger join the group of IZOD IndyCar Series regulars was far from standard. The last time Allmendinger ran laps in an Indy car was on Oct. 21, 2006, at Surfers Paradise, Australia.
Now a veteran of six stock car seasons, Allmendinger was sitting behind the wheel of a race car much lower to the ground, attempting not to add pressure to the session but anxiously envisioning where this day would lead.
"How do you get into this thing?" Allmendinger joked with the Team Penske crew.
"Just be careful you don't break anything," replied Penske Racing president Tim Cindric. "Remember the goal is to start here and stop here."
Team owner Roger Penske and Cindric offered Allmendinger a testing opportunity with the potential for a partial season during the 19-race IZOD IndyCar Series schedule. Cindric said the April 5-7 race at Barber Motorsports Park would be a good event to enter Allmendinger, who would benefit from a March 12-13 Open Test at the road course in Birmingham, Ala. The possibility also exists for Allmendinger to race in the Indianapolis 500.
"My heart was beating fast and the first couple of runs the car was definitely driving me," said Allmendinger, who edged Justin Wilson for Champ Car Rookie of the Year honors in 2004. "I'm looking for the best opportunity. It slowly has come back to me. Everything feels real fast. A Cup car has more horsepower, but because of its weight that sensation of speed is a lot different. When you get an IndyCar on a road course, it feels like it has 1,500 horsepower."
Allmendinger, 31, of Los Gatos, Calif., was suspended by NASCAR last summer for failing a random drug test. His "B" sample also came back positive for a banned substance and he was released by Penske Racing from his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series contract. Allmendinger completed the Road to Recovery program and was reinstated in September. He is in good standings with INDYCAR.
"Will and Helio have welcomed me into their race team with open arms and I'm definitely happy to be here," he said. "I'd love for it to lead to some races, especially Indy. I'm so grateful to the organization to give me this opportunity. To what I went through last year, to have Roger ask me to come here and drive one of his race cars happy is an understatement.
"In this process, I've learned a lot about myself and how to be a better person. All I can do is take care of myself and the things you can control. Waiting (for a call to race) doesn't matter. I'm just going to be ready physically and mentally for when they do call."
Power, who competed against Allmendinger in the '06 Champ Car season, said he's already fitting in with the team.
"He's easy to get along with. When I raced him, he was very fast. That year, had he started with Forsythe, he probably would have won the championship. I'd love him as a teammate."
Former competitors would welcome Allmendinger back: What stands out to Justin Wilson about the multi-dimensional AJ Allmendinger?
"He's just a really fun guy to be around, easy-going and obviously fan favorite. He's quick as well and can back up all his kidding around off the track with the speed on the track," said Wilson, who has competed against and has been a teammate of Allmendinger.
The two, who most recently teamed up to co-drive a Michael Shank Racing entry to third place in the Rolex 24 At Daytona, crossed paths again as the fog was lifting at Sebring International Raceway to start a team/manufacturer test day. Both had work to attend to - Wilson in a Honda-powered Dale Coyne Racing car and Allmendinger getting his initial laps in the No. 2 Team Penske-prepared Chevrolet entry - so catching up was limited to a few pit lane pleasantries.
Wilson and Allmendinger also were teammates in Champ Car at RuSPORT during the 2005 season, in which Wilson finished third in the championship (behind titlist Sebastien Bourdais and Oriol Servia) and Allmendinger placed fifth. The previous season, Allmendinger edged out Wilson for Rookie of the Year honors.
Wilson remained at RuSPORT for 2006 and was runner-up to Bourdais in the championship. Allmendinger competed in the first four races of the season for RuSPORT, but was replaced by 2002 CART champion Cristiano da Matta. Five days later, he joined Forsythe Championship Racing and won the next three races. He earned five victories in all and placed third in the standings.
On this particular winter day, Allmendinger was examining another career option. Surrounded by familiar faces, he got reacquainted with an Indy car.
"He'll get back up to speed quickly. It's the finer details of the car that takes time," Wilson said. "I enjoy racing him and would love to do so again. I think he would bring some interest to the series."
Bourdais, a four-time Champ Car champion, who is entering his second season with Dragon Racing agrees.
"He's a tough racer," said Bourdais, who joined new teammate Sebastian Saavedra in testing Feb. 18 at Sebring. "He's fast and the records speak for themself. We had some pretty serious battles. It will be interesting to see how it shakes out. Maybe he'll get back full time (in the series). (If so) he's going to be running at the front with one of the best cars."