Brash driver falls just short of first win
CLEVELAND -- Quick! Name the young American racer who soundly beat Danica Patrick to the Toyota Atlantic Championship title in 2003.
Here's a hint: he finished second in two of the last three Champ Car World Series races, including Sunday's Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by U.S. Bank.
Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to A.J. Allmendinger. He's a 23-year-old Californian who's brash, fast, and -- gasp -- potentially even more marketable than the former Atlantic foe who has created such a frenzy in the open-wheel racing world.
Named after Champ Car legend A.J. Foyt, Allmendinger is a compact bundle of energy capped by a flat-top haircut. In an age when racers are trained to be corporate drones, the outspoken Allmendinger is always ready to deliver a refreshing dose of self-deprecating candor.
On Sunday, he came within 3.113 seconds of recording his first Champ Car win, beaten only by his mentor, Paul Tracy. It was the drive of the day in a flat-out shootout in hot and muggy conditions, and it came just 24 hours after Allmendinger absorbed what he called "one of the hardest hits I've felt" in a qualifying crash that left him a disappointed ninth on the grid.
"Fortunately, I don't have too many [crashes] to talk about," he quickly added. "If they moved the wall in Turn 8, we'd be a bit quicker through there."
The Turn 8 crash, which came with just minutes remaining in final qualifying, was bigger than Allmendinger let on. He was taken to MetroHealth Hospital for a precautionary CT scan and was not cleared to drive by Champ Car medical director Dr. Chris Pinderski until he passed an IMPACT motor skills test on Sunday morning. Even so, Allmendinger said he was not feeling his best.
"The CT scan said there was nothing in my head, but I'm not ever really there -- especially not today," Allmendinger quipped. "Actually, I was a bit sore and my stomach was kind of on edge or queasy. My main problem the last 25 laps was trying not to lose my lunch in the car."
That small problem aside, at that stage of the race, things were looking good for Allmendinger and his RuSPORT team. They made a timely Lap 52 pit stop in the aftermath of the crash that eliminated leader Cristiano da Matta from the race, putting A.J. in the lead when the leaders pitted four laps later. But Allmendinger wasn't able to pull out a big enough lead to maintain his advantage through the final round of pit stops, which he triggered on Lap 76 of 91.
"I knew when I pitted that Paul [Tracy] would push as hard as he could, so it wasn't a big surprise to me that he got the lead," Allmendinger said. "It would have required some kind of magical pit stop for us and some kind of a problem in the pits for him, but his team has been around for a long time so I wasn't getting my hopes up.
"I knew he would come out ahead of us. It was just a matter of how much. And Cristiano definitely had the car to beat."
Even though he fell short of claiming his first win, Allmendinger walked away from Burke Lakefront Airport in good spirits Sunday afternoon.
"This is big for the team," he reflected. "We struggled all weekend and should have been further up in qualifying. But the guys kept working and we were able to come out with a second-place finish. That kind of result builds more character in a young team than getting the pole and winning the race."
It's also the kind of result that should attract the kind of attention that Patrick is generating through her exploits in the Indy Racing League. Allmendinger is the real deal, arguably the most promising American racer to come along since Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr. He has a personal sponsorship deal with Red Bull, but the RuSPORT team has had a tough time selling sponsorship in a barren market. A win would definitely help.
"We keep inching up the podium," A.J. noted. "This weekend, the driver made it harder for everyone in the team by demolishing a car and trying to knock himself out. The important thing is that the car was fast. That's why we were able to hold position, kind of like da Matta at Portland. Our time will come."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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