SEBRING, Fla. – Nothing strikes you as out of the ordinary.
Team Penske personnel dutifully attend to the Nos. 2, 3 and 12 Chevrolet-powered cars under a canopy at Sebring International Raceway as the effervescent Helio Castroneves engages in some early morning repartee with Melissa Rycroft and the crew from the TV Guide Channel assigned to film his test day.
Noted break dancer Will Power -- whose humor is as dry as the sand that the twisting circuit is built on – talks about the recent “Harlem Shake” videos showcasing the moves of IZOD IndyCar Series contemporaries Josef Newgarden and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Nearby, the lithe AJ Allmendinger prepared to slip on his helmet before slipping into the custom seat of the No. 2 Dallara for a preseason jaunt on the 1.7-mile short course.
It was another routine test day, albeit the first of the year as IZOD IndyCar Series teams continue preparations for the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 24. But having Allmendinger join the group is far from routine. The last time he ran laps in an Indy car was Oct. 21, 2006, at Surfers Paradise, Australia.
Now the veteran of six stock car seasons was sitting behind the wheel of a race car much lower to the ground, attempting not to add pressure to the session but nonetheless anxious envisioning where this day would lead.
"How do you get into this thing?" Allmendinger joked with the 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 Tim Cindric afforded Allmendinger this opportunity with the potential for others during the 19-race IZOD IndyCar Series season. 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. Then the Indianapolis 500? The team would have a third car available, according to Cindric. Ron Ruzewski, the team's technical director, would be his engineer.
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.
"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.
"Will and Helio have welcomed me into their race team with open arms and I'm definitely happy to be here. 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."
Allmendinger, who was doing simulated pit stops with about 15 minutes left in the eight-hour session, had a best lap of 52.618 seconds. Takuma Sato, in his first exercise in the No. 14 ABC Supply car for A.J. Foyt Racing, topped the list at 51.947.
Allmendinger’s motorsports career started in karting, progressed through Formula Ford in New Zealand and began to take off when he won the Barber Dodge Pro championship in 2002. The next year he earned the Champ Car Atlantic Championship with RuSPORT.
Allmendinger graduated to Champ Car with RuSPORT in ’04, placing sixth in the standings with a best finish of third. He earned the pole at Edmonton and was runner-up in four races in the 2005 season, during which he finished fifth in the championship. In ’06, he won five races – including three in a row after being dismissed by RuSPORT and joining Forsythe Championship Racing – and wound up third behind champion Sebastien Bourdais and Wilson in the standings.
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."