DENVER -- From BMX bikes to karts to the Toyota Atlantic series, racing has always been easy for A.J. Allmendinger.
Not this year.
With faster cars, stiffer competition and a seemingless endless learning curve, Allmendinger has found the move to Champ Cars far more difficult than he imagined.
"It's been very difficult. Very rewarding at times, other times very stressful, very painful," Allmendinger said. "But I'm having a great time and each weekend we seem to get a little bit closer to the top. It's been exciting for me and it's like a dream come true. There's no place I'd rather be."
But if this is struggling, imagine what Allmendinger will do when he feels comfortable.
After winning the Toyota Atlantic series title last year, Allmendinger has five top 10 finishes in nine Champ races, including a fifth at last weekend's Grand Prix of Denver. He's first in rookie points, 13 ahead of former Formula One driver Justin Wilson, and eighth overall.
And Allmendinger is doing it with a rookie team, putting him in line to become the first Champ Car driver in the modern era (since 1979) to win the rookie points title with a first-year team.
"He has an enormous amount of natural ability," RuSPORT owner Carl Russo said. "And the last piece, which is what differentiates the good ones from the great ones, is he's got a great talent but he doesn't take it for granted."
It's that kind of work ethic that helped Allmendinger reach the Champ Car series ahead of schedule.
Allmendinger's plan was to spend two years in the Barber Dodge Pro Series and two more in Toyota Atlantic before reaching Champ Cars in 2006. That timetable changed when he started having so much success.
Allmendinger, 22, won the 2002 Barber Dodge title and was equally effective in Toyota Atlantics last year, winning seven of 12 races to become the second-youngest driver - to Michael Andretti - to win the series title. So before last season was even over, he had already shifted his focus.
"About midway through the Atlantic, even though I didn't focus on Champ Car racing, it started getting in my head that I could be there in 2004," Allmendinger said. "At first 'no way' and the middle of last season I started hoping that we'd be able to make the jump."
He did, but it turned out to be an eye-opening experience.
Allmendinger had driven Champ Cars before, logging more than 100 miles while testing engines while he was still in the Barber Dodge series, but didn't fully grasp the nuances until jumping behind the wheel full time this year.
First off, Champ Cars have about 500-600 more horsepower than Toyota Atlantics, are much heavier and harder to control and have more braking force.
While Toyota Atlantic cars are quick and nimble, needing just the slightest turn of the wheel to get them headed in the right direction, Champ Cars require more of a long, fluid motion and are much more difficult to control once they start to slide.
Then there's the setup.
In Toyota Atlantic, the team would set up the car and it would pretty much be set for a race. Champ Cars need numerous adjustments and the slightest mistake in setup can drastically cut down the performance of the car.
"It's a difficult transition because the Atlantic cars ... are lighter and have less horsepower," Russo said. "These cars are heavier and they have a lot more horsepower, so it's taken him some time to adjust. He's still not at a place with the car where I think he wants to be, but he's starting to figure it out."
But for all the technical issues Allmendinger faces, it's the mental aspect that hits him hardest.
With each car having the same engine package and roughly the same chasis, winning on the Champ Car circuit comes down to setting up the car and making adjustments as races progress. Battling the car and adjusting to course setups means constantly having to figure out tweaks to make things work.
And just driving the car takes a toll.
The longest race of Allmendinger's career before this year was 45 minutes. Champ races typically last two hours, and drivers have to stay focused or they'll end up in a wall somewhere.
"It's physically tougher, but more than anything it's mentally tougher because you've got to stay focused all the time," Allmendinger said. "After a weekend, it wears on you. The next three days, I'm dead. You force yourself to get up and go work out, but mentally you're just like 'I'm not here."'
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