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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Confidence comes roaring back
By BRANT JAMES
Published September 2, 2006
A.J. Allmendinger is having one of the best, and most anonymous, seasons a non-NASCAR-driving American has enjoyed in years. At 24, the Californian won three straight Champ Car races (the first of his career) with Forsythe Racing after being dumped midseason by RuSport, then added a fourth, making St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais' run for a third straight title more interesting. Invigorated on the track and having the kind of fun drivers are supposed to have, he said, the namesake of legend A.J. Foyt chatted with Times staff writer Brant James about a remarkable season, picking a hero and the way to find good chiropractic care.
So why do race car drivers keep getting engaged to models? (Allmendinger is to wed former Toronto Sun Sunshine Girl Lynne Kushnirenko).
I don't think she'd like being called a model. She was a part-time model. She's more of a doctor now.
She owns her own chiropractic clinic in Toronto.
You proposed to her the day after RuSport fired you. Was it a tough sell?
I like to complicate things for myself. I figured I needed something good after getting fired. I was in Toronto when it happened and I came to Toronto with plans, and I wasn't going to let it interrupt my plans. But at that point I had to have my mom call her and promise her I would get myself a job.
What went wrong at RuSport?
I really think it comes down to they started going in a different direction, the way they ran the team. It became more kind of a businesslike team, where it was blue-collared before. That's fine. I mean, there's nothing bad about running it like that, but for me, it was too businesslike. Let's be honest, we do this because it is exciting and there's not a lot of people in the world who get this chance.
How did the new deal come about so quickly, in a matter of days?
I was let go and at that point Forsythe was thinking of letting Mario Dominguez go because they'd had some struggles this year to get together and weren't getting along. So it just came down to they were looking for a driver, and Gerry (Forsythe) told me that he had a lot of drivers on the list until the moment he heard I was let go.
How's Paul Tracy as a teammate?
We do what we have to do and help each other on the race track but it really comes down to we are joking around a lot, we are having fun and I don't think people really get to see that out of Paul.
How have you managed to handle such a roller-coaster ride of a season?
The last year and a half I haven't had a lot of confidence in myself between some of the mistakes I made last year and getting in the car every weekend and not having a comfortable car to drive and knowing that it was going to take a lot of luck to win the race. That's not a good feeling. Honestly, for me, it made me not want to be in the car anymore because the team wasn't having fun, so it wasn't like I could turn to them. My personal life wasn't very good, so it wasn't like I could turn to that and nothing was going well. I was really down and I didn't want to be at the track anymore. . . . Now, I have a lot of confidence. Before I would push so hard to get the monkey off my back and get the critics to stop asking me when I would win, I would take maybe a third-place car and make a mistake with it and finish worse than third or crash.
Nice of Paul to help you by taking out Bourdais at the end of the Denver race, huh?
I thank Paul for giving me some extra points. Honestly, more than anything I actually felt bad for Paul. He's had bad luck this season, he drove his butt off in the race coming from the back and honestly making it look pretty easy to come from the back to the front, then to get to the end . . . I don't ever feel bad for Bourdais, absolutely, no. The guy's been quite lucky and quite good for the last two-and-a-half years, so I never feel bad for him.
Who do young American open wheel drivers idolize?
For me it wasn't I wanted to be like somebody. I like to take aspects of all the drivers and what made them good and try to put that into myself a little bit and see what that gave me. Obviously, Michael Schumacher is a great guy to look at. Not because he's seven-time world champion, but the thing that always made me pretty amazed about the guy was the mere fact that as seven-time world champion, he would go out there and seem like he got faster every year. You might think a guy should have a letdown because he doesn't need to prove anything else, but he keeps pushing. I always liked (Juan Pablo) Montoya's aggressiveness. I always liked a guy like Gil de Ferran, a guy who never got enough credit for how good he was. But it seemed like, especially when he was in Champ Car and had those back-to-back championships (2000-01), you barely remember that because he did it so cool and he didn't go out there and dominate the races, but he was there every weekend.
You were replaced at RuSport by Cristiano da Matta, who was involved in a crash with a deer a couple of weeks later at Elkhart Lake, Wis. Do you ever think that could have been you?
I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about it. You don't look at it and say, "What if it was me?," though you just pray and hope that he gets back and he's ready to race. It could have been me. It could have been anyone.