MONTREAL – American race car driver A.J. Allmendinger is an up-and-coming superstar in the world of open wheel racing. But outside of the Champ Car World Series, he almost is a complete unknown.
If the 25-year-old Denver native had chosen a different career path, he would probably be racing this weekend in Bristol against other young guns like Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Kyle Busch.
And he just might have had the best of them. He's that good.
Allmendinger's story is not unlike the typical American driver's saga.
He started out racing karts as a teenager and was discovered early on by veteran open wheel racer Paul Tracy, who took Allmendinger under his wing and helped, in part, to guide his career.
Allmendinger later graduated to one of American open wheel racing's ladder system series, the Barber Dodge Pro Series, where he won the title in 2002. The following year, he moved up the ladder to the Atlantic Championship Series, which is the next step before Champ Cars, and promptly won that title as well while driving for the RuSport team.
In 2004, RuSport moved into Champ Cars and brought Allmendinger along, where he won the Rookie of the Year title.
He continued to progress in Champ Cars last season, but 2006 started off poorly and eventually his chemistry with RuSport turned sour.
Three races into the season, Allmendinger was replaced at RuSport by former series champion Cristiano da Matta, who unfortunately has since been sidelined by a freak testing accident that has left him hospitalized.
Allmendinger moved over to Forsythe Racing and became teammate to his mentor Tracy. That's when everything began to click for him and he won his first race with the team, the Grand Prix of Portland. The victory was, at the time, the first by an American driver in the series since early 2004.
Allmendinger has since gone on to win four races and two poles and is second in points behind Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais, who is racing toward his third consecutive title.
With the current split camp in open wheel racing in North America and with so many young and maybe less-talented American racers looking to NASCAR these days, one has to wonder why Allmendinger himself hasn't made the move to the stock car series. Drivers earn more money, the spotlight shines brighter and the competition is deeper.
Allmendinger remains committed to Champ Car, for now.
"I love this series. I love the places that we go to, like Montreal and Australia and Long Beach," Allmendinger said. "The fans are great and the racing is great. But it does need to get strong. We do need more cars and more exposure and more sponsors.
"It's unfortunate. It's sad to see the state that it's [open wheel racing] in. But it's getting better and with the new cars next year, there will be more exposure."
Allmendinger knows that more sponsors will come when the product is good and the exposure, both in the media and on television, is broad and more positive.
He would like to see American open wheel racing return to its glory days like in the 1990s when drivers like Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt, Mario and Michael Andretti and Alex Zanardi brought a level of notoriety and exposure that made it much more popular than NASCAR.
"In a perfect world, the two series would unite into one strong series," Allmendinger said.
Until that happens, he'll stay with the Champ Car World Series, which next year is expected to be an all-road course series.
Allmendinger is pleased about that, even if it means passing up the Indianapolis 500, which for many open wheel drivers is the holy grail of racing.
"I've never been a fan of open wheel cars on ovals," he said. "The Indy 500 has never had that kind of appeal for me. To me, it's just another race. I'm more focused on winning championships, not just one race."
A future in NASCAR?
Allmendinger hasn't turned his back on one day racing in NASCAR.
"There's a lot of appeal there," he said.
But he's not in any great hurry to make the switch.
He likes that he can still walk down the street unnoticed, but he'd certainly give that up for a chance to race for a well-financed and well-run NASCAR team.
And for the right reasons.
"Money is nice, don't get me wrong," Allmendinger said. "It lets us have bigger houses and not worry about paying our bills. But for me it's more important to win. To have the right situation to win, like I have right now with Forsythe Racing."
No one knows better about being in a competitive ride in NASCAR than his mentor Tracy, who has driven five Busch races this year with a fairly uncompetitive team.
"He is a very, very good driver, " said Tracy, who admits that Allmendinger has taken more than just a casual look toward NASCAR recently.
Tracy would like to see him stay in Champ Car for a few more years, but he knows that the appeal of NASCAR is very strong for Allmendinger &ndash and the financial rewards are extremely lucrative.
"If he gets the right opportunity, it will be extremely hard to pass up," Tracy said. "He's got a long career ahead of him. The sky is the limit for him."
For now, Allmendinger is quite comfortable being the only American-born driver in the Indianapolis-based Champ Car World Series – though Graham Rahal, the 18-year-old son of racing legend Bobby Rahal, is poised to enter Champ Car, quite possibly as soon as next year.
But for now, Allmendinger is the main attraction for American race fans that want to support one of their own.
"I take a lot of pride in that," Allmendinger said.