CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — AJ Allmendinger's parents attended their first Indianapolis 500 in 1979, when they camped in a grassy lot and watched Rick Mears win his first 500.
Their son was born two years later — Greg Allmendinger named him after A.J. Foyt, his favorite driver — and for a time it seemed like the Allmendingers would make it back to Indy with him. Allmendinger had risen through the open-wheel ranks to become one of the top drivers in the Champ Car Series with a five-win 2006 season.
But a NASCAR opportunity came along and Allmendinger switched series, and the dream of one day cheering on their son in the "Biggest Spectacle In Racing" began to fade.
Until one bad decision cost Allmendinger the best job he ever had — and Roger Penske decided to give him a rare second chance.
Allmendinger will make his Indianapolis 500 debut on Sunday, seven years after he left open-wheel racing — in a Penske Racing entry, no less. It doesn't get much bigger or better than this, and all these years later, Allmendinger has finally brought his parents back to the 500.
He's posed for pictures at his car with his parents, who arrived in Indianapolis in time to see Allmendinger qualify fifth on Saturday.
"Then my Dad went and found Larry Foyt and said, 'Where's your Dad at? I want to go meet him, I haven't met him yet ... By the way, I'm AJ's dad,'" Allmendinger said. "It'll be cool to really share this with my parents, especially my Dad. For them to experience this."
It's funny how life sometimes works out, and Allmendinger has learned enough in the last 10 months not to question why things happen.
Allmendinger is a better person because he stupidly accepted a strange pill from a friend who said it would help with his fatigue. Allmendinger says the pill he popped last June was Adderall — he didn't ask what it was as he was swallowing it — and it caused him to fail a random NASCAR drug test. Suspended hours before the July race at Daytona, Allmendinger was out of a job since Penske had no choice but to fire the driver when the backup "B'' sample also came back positive.
He participated in NASCAR's "Road to Recovery" program, and learned during that time he had to stop putting so much pressure on himself, that his happiness didn't solely depend on his results on the race track. He had Penske's support the entire time, even though the team owner had zero responsibility to a driver whose six months of employment had brought embarrassment to the great Penske organization
Allmendinger didn't ask Penske why he was standing behind him, why he brought him out to the IndyCar season finale at Fontana in September as his guest, or why he continued to think of ways to get Allmendinger back in the race car.
When The Captain called and asked Allmendinger if he had any interest in running the Indianapolis 500, the only thing Allmendinger said was 'Yes, sir. Whatever you want, sir."
"I feel very fortunate, the racing side of it is great, but that he's cared enough to stay in contact," Allmendinger said. "That means way more than putting me in a race car. I'm just enjoying the ride right now. I'm never going to turn down a Roger Penske race car."
This Roger Penske car was another opportunity for a disgraced driver, and it didn't matter that it meant returning to the racing he'd walked away from for the fame and fortune of NASCAR.
Only Allmendinger found things to very different when he returned. The competition was much improved all the way down the grid, and driving the year-old Indy car was harder than his time in Champ Car.
"I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn't know it was going to be this hard," he said. "It's shown that seven years of stock car racing has transformed me. It's everything — the downforce levels, how hard you have to drive the cars to get any kind of lap time. Going to do the test with the series and then going to the races — that field is so strong. Being back in the series, it's a little frustrating because I wish people understood how good these drivers are in this series."
It hasn't been easy, at all, and Allmendinger has leaned on Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power in his transition. It was Castroneves who shook down Allmendinger's car before his rookie orientation at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Allmendinger was touched that Castroneves hung around on the pit stand talking to him during his laps on the track.
"He could have easily shook down the car, told Roger it was fine and gone back to the garage and gotten ready for his car. But he stood there on the timing stand, headset on, talking to me. I've been very fortunate, and Will has been the same way," said Allmendinger, who struggled with the urge to brake during his first laps and learned quickly if he ran the same line he did in the NASCAR races at Indy he'd end up in the grass.
He's gotten more comfortable with each passing day, and his teacher has been none other than Mears, the four-time Indianapolis winner and the driver his parents saw win all those years ago. From there it's on to Detroit for the IndyCar doubleheader with Penske.
But Allmendinger has nothing on his schedule beyond the Detroit races. He's run four of 11 NASCAR races this year with Phoenix Racing, but owner James Finch is threatening to shut the team down after the July race at Indy. Allmendinger believes he's got a ride in NASCAR with Finch, he just doesn't know how long that car will be on the track.
He doesn't worry about it though. Allmendinger's experience of landing his dream job then promptly losing it because of a dumb mistake has taught him so much that he didn't hesitate Monday when asked if he's happier now then he was a year ago when he driving in NASCAR for Penske.
"For sure. Definitely," said Allmendinger, who now just takes things one day at a time.
"It's working out pretty good right now. I thought after 24 Hours of Rolex I wasn't doing anything, so it's worked out pretty well so far. I'm going to ride the wave right now and figure out what happens after that."
Allmendinger, still uber-confident despite his journey, has a plan.
"The way I look at it, if I go win Indy, Roger's gotta give me more races," he smiled.