Will AJ Allmendinger Move The Needle?
Much has been made recently of AJ Allmendinger possibly running a few races in the IZOD IndyCar Series for Team Penske this season. There is good reason for that. He is a very well known American driver, who has as much talent interacting with fans as he does driving a car on the track. He has won in Champ Car and Grand Am racing. He also had a golden opportunity come up when Roger Penske parted ways with Kurt Busch in Penske’s NASCAR program at the end of the 2011 season. However, halfway through the season, Allmendinger was suspended for testing positive for a substance on NASCAR’s banned substance list.
There are varying reports on that matter, that I’ll not get into. Suffice it to say that this was not a street drug and that Allmendinger may have actually taken a substance without knowing it was banned. Whatever the case, Allmendinger went through NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program and was reinstated near the end of the season.
It would be incorrect to say that Allmendinger had been experiencing a terrific season at Penske before the suspension. In the seventeen points-paying races he ran for Penske, Allmendinger had three front-row starts, one on the pole at Kansas. He also had a second place finish at Martinsville along with two ninth place finishes. In that seventeen race stretch, he also had six finishes lower than thirtieth. After his suspension, Allmendinger was officially dropped from Penske. Or was he?
Roger Penske seemed to take a personal liking to Allmendinger. He was a guest of the team at the IndyCar finale at Fontana last fall. After it became apparent that Team Penske and Ryan Briscoe had parted ways for 2013, the rumor started spreading that Allmendinger would get a few races in Briscoe’s former seat on a part-time basis.
Although nothing is official, the rumor certainly started looking like fact when Allmendinger joined the team for testing at Sebring last week. There are some scheduling conflicts to resolve, but it appears that Allmendinger will be in the Penske car at Barber and the Indianapolis 500 at the very least. Depending on sponsorship, there could be others.
From what I understand, Allmendinger created quite the buzz at Sebring. Several in attendance report that fans turned out just to see how well Allmendinger would do. Some of them had no idea who any other drivers were, but they knew Allmendinger.
The question is, if Allmendinger returns to open-wheel racing for the first time since 2006 – will it make that much of a difference in fan support of the IZOD IndyCar Series? The answer is a definite “I’m not sure”.
My degree is in marketing, but I never heard the term “move the needle” used until I heard it in a racing conversation about five years ago. The debate at that time was how much Danica Patrick “moved the needle” by bringing awareness to the sport. NASCAR had their best ratings for Sunday’s Daytona 500 in years. Much of that is directly related to the presence of Ms. Patrick. It’s safe to say that she moved the needle.
Although we hard-core fans know all about AJ Allmendinger, I think it’s safe to say that most potential new fans outside of racing have no idea who he is. If they do, it’s a good chance they know his name for the wrong reasons by remembering his testing positive for an illegal substance. While most race fans know who AJ Allmendinger is, practically the whole world knows who Danica Patrick is. Consequently, many of them tuned in to watch NASCAR’s version of a single-file parade, while they followed one of the few drivers on the track they could even name.
AJ Allmendinger has a following, but nothing like Danica’s. His following is comprised mostly of those race fans that remember his five wins in 2006 – his last season spent in Champ Car. Then there are those who remember the impressive drive he had for Michael Shank Racing in winning the Rolex 24 in 2011. Without Allmendinger’s strong performance, there is a strong possibility that Michael Shank’s car ends up winning that race. Then there are those who followed Allmendinger ever since he joined NASCAR in 2007. Driving for Red Bull, then Richard Petty Motorsports before moving into the Penske ride – Allmendinger did not attain the same level of success in Cup racing, but he was great with fans and built a loyal following.
Now that he is rumored to drive a handful of races in the IZOD IndyCar Series for Team Penske, some are talking like he is destined to be the savior for the series. Hardly. With all due respect to AJ Allmendinger, it’s going to take a lot more than him to turn around the fortunes of a series desperate for star power and name recognition.
But it certainly can’t hurt. While the presence of AJ Allmendinger may not move the proverbial needle much at first, he has the potential to bring some new eyeballs to our sport. If the new Gen-6 car in NASCAR is no racier in subsequent races than it was in Daytona, fans following Allmendinger may like what they see in the DW12 and how racy it is. Those fans may tell other fans and…well, you get the idea.
That’s the way you build a loyal following – one fan at a time. It may take longer, but the fans you earn that way are much more likely to stay than those casual fans tuning in just to check out the latest craze. If new fans tuned into Daytona because of Danica and experienced racing for the first time, I’ll promise they scratched their heads wondering why all the fuss over auto racing after watching what was a single-file parade for most of the race. They are the ones who question what the big deal is to watch cars go around in a circle. As I watched Sunday’s race, I occasionally asked myself the same thing.
So will AJ Allmendinger move the needle for IndyCar? Not immediately, but if everything plays out over time – he could make a difference. Time will tell.