The highest selling NFL jersey for April 2010 was a freshly drafted Tim Tebow and all he had done is pick up the playbook and he created national news and sold massive amounts of merchandise. James Hinchcliffe, arguably the most popular driver to enter Indycar in the last five years didn’t have a jersey fans could buy until midway through his sophomore season. The NBA, NFL and NASCAR all have feeder leagues that send pre-made stars to the professional leagues. Indycar has the Firestone Indy Lights and Star Pro Mazda.
Indycar’s ladder series might do a good job of training drivers for what they’ll face in the IZOD Indycar series – an idea I’m still not sold on — but Indycar has to build their stars themselves. While dedicated Indycar race fans know who Conor Daly, Sage Karam and Alexander Rossi are your average ESPN viewer doesn’t, but they probably know who A.J. Allmendinger is, if only for the controversy surrounding him last year.
The former Champ Car standout is the only American to go head to head with Sebastien Bourdais during his domination of Champ Car and win, reeling of three straight and five in total in 2006. After appearing as the racing version of “Great White Hope,” he alienated what few remaining fans Champ Car had by following his long-time personal sponsor Red Bull into NASCAR. Allmendinger’s NASCAR resume isn’t stellar, at Red Bull and Penske Racing he was outperformed by his teammate, and while he was at Richard Petty Motorsports the team struggled with sponsorship.
He further alienated fans when he tested positive for amphetamines. Those who still like him probably tend to believe him that it was an accidental dosage, other’s not so much. I tend to believe him, and one thing that pushes me in that direction is Rodger Penske. Penske is a shrewd businessman who seems to have a great financial team around him. If Penske is offering AJ a second chance I’m sure he’s done his due diligence.
Allmendinger was the headliner of the test at Seabring, and to hear him talk it sounds like he plans on being back. It was announced that Dinger would race at my hometown race in Barber Motorsport Park, possibly Long Beach, and the Indy 500 if the test went well, which apparently it did. But when I watch to his interview on Racer he clearly intimates that there’s a possibility of a full time ride in the offing, either this year or next year.
If Penske does sign Allmendinger to a long-term contract it would be the first time in my memory where the Indycar to NASCAR pipeline will have reversed itself. If he races at Indy this year he’ll be the first driver since maybe Nigel Mansell to have an established American fan base before racing in the Indy 500. Beyond that he’s American, attractive, well spoken, has more personality that Scott Dixon, is somewhat of a live wire and an aggressive driver.
Allmendinger’s 31, so he could easily have a decade in Indycar if he and Penske want it. I’m not saying he’s going to pull in vast amounts of NASCAR fans, because he won’t, but it will be the first time in two decades where a driver with established American name recognition will be racing in the Indy 500.