For leaving American open wheel racing.
At a 2006 press conference at Road America, A.J. Allmendinger had just won his fifth race of the year and announced that he had “No plans to go to NASCAR.” Six weeks later Allmendinger announced he had signed a contract to drive for Red Bull’s new NASCAR team. Champ Car’s fans felt betrayed, how dare the first winning American with the potential to be the next Michael Andretti leave? To this day there are fans who bring up this incident on message boards and twitter every time Allmendinger’s name comes up in conversation. It was announced today that Allmendinger is returning to open wheel for at least three races this year. Here’s five reasons why you can’t blame him for leaving.
No. 5 Allmendinger didn’t owe the fans anything, but he probably had debts.
A. J. Allmendinger was/is a man trying to make a living by driving a car very fast on a closed course. It’s an expensive proposition and only a handful of people are able to make money at. Yes, Gerry Forsythe reportedly offered to pay Allmendinger to return to the contract in 2007, but it wasn’t anything close to what Red Bull — which some reports put the number at $3 million a year — paid him to make the leap to NASCAR.
What most people don’t realize is that in order for a driver to make their way up the ladder in racing they either come from a rich family or find investors. Investors often pay for part or all of a season in a developmental series and expect to get paid back once the driver makes it the top level. Scott Dixon has publicly referenced paying back his investors, during Helio Castroneves’ tax evasion trial it came out that a good percentage of Helio’s first contract with Penske Racing went to repaying his father. Odds are A.J. had people he had to pay back for his years in the Champ Car Atlantic series and potentially RuSport as well.
No. 4 “The Split”
While “The Split” was a topic of heated discussion where many fans, teams, and drivers had to choose between the Indy Racing League and CART/Champ Car Allmendinger was almost born into it. When The Indy Racing league was formed Allmendinger was 14. He was like a freshman in high school. It wasn’t something he wanted, he didn’t badmouth the IRL, he didn’t champion Champ Car, he was just a guy trying to make a name for himself. Fans wanted him to win the war for him, he was a guy trying to go fast.
By the time 2006 came and Allmendinger’s career was on the upswing the war between Tony George and the team owners of CART/Champ Car had ranged for a decade, and despite the best efforts of a number of people showed no signs of calming. Allmendinger is part of a group of drivers whose open wheel careers were either damaged, or never got going, because of “The Split.”
No. 3 NASCAR was on an upswing
NASCAR hit its peak popularity sometime in the early 2000’s, all the while Champ Car and the IRL was declining. In 2006 I count maybe five real sponsors in Champ Car that year, 14 races and had 15 full time drivers. The IRL was in better shape, but not much. Meanwhile NASCAR looked to be on the road to be replacing baseball as the “Big three” of American sports. You can’t blame a guy for wanting to be relevant.
No. 2 Gerry Forsythe
When the merger finally happened in 2008 Gerry Forsythe shut down Forsythe Championship Racing leaving Paul Tracy without a ride. Had A.J. signed a two-year contract with Forsythe at the end of 2006 he would have been in the same situation Tracy found himself in: no ride.
Also, it was reported that Allmendinger was trying to leverage the Red Bull contract into a better contract out of Forsythe, but Forysthe broke off negotiations.
No. 1 Both series were on life support
Even during a good economy both series were struggling to survive and then the bottom fell out of the economy in 2008. The two sides had been taking about unification off and on for ten years by the time Allmendinger decided to sign with Red Bull. Had the two series not come together before the economy cratered I wouldn’t like to give odds that either series would have survived. The IRL lost money every year it existed and there appears to be a limit to how much the Hulman George family is willing to lose in order to keep the series going.
In 2006 it was fifty-fifty if Champ Car would have a season opener, or if the IRL would continue after the Indy 500. If you had to choose between a moderately paying ride in a series, an entire formula really, that could fold, or a well paying ride in an ascending series which one would you take?
Other reasons that didn’t make the cut: Red Bull’s long term relationship with Allmendinger. Kyle Krisiloff, the grandchild of the IRL’s chairwoman, bought a NASCAR ride so did Paul Menard, whose family has a long history in open wheel. IRL Champ Sam Hornish left for NASCAR at about the same time. Gerry Fosythe couldn’t find a sponsor for Allmendinger despite wining five races. Champ Car’s television contract was horrible. Champ Car kept cancelling races.