When he was an aspiring young racer struggling to find money to keep his dreams on track, A.J. Allmendinger got a helping hand from a driver who had already made it to the top: Paul Tracy from Scarborough, Ont.
So, when Allmendinger began to find success of his own, the idea of using his privileged position as a NASCAR Sprint Cup regular to give a young driver a boost was a no-brainer for the 30-year-old from California.
"I got helped by Paul Tracy, and without that help and exposure, I wouldn't have been able to do what I was able to do," said Allmendinger, who drives the No. 22 Penske Dodge car in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series. "Hopefully, this is my opportunity to help somebody out and give someone the same chance.
"I think racing is the hardest sport to get into because it's not just about talent — it's about off the racetrack, on the racetrack, it's about luck, and it's about being in the right place at the right time. I was very fortunate. It seemed like I was always in the right place at the right time."
After a few years of percolating, his Walldinger Racing Karting Scholarship came together this season and Allmendinger announced last week that Florida's Kyle Kirkwood would be the first youngster to benefit. The Florida karter began racing at five years old and already has several titles in his home state.
The backing from the Penske driver will allow the 13-year-old to race a full season in the World Karting Association (WKA) Manufacturer's Cup Series, as well as compete at the Rotax Grand Nationals and SuperKartsUSA SuperNationals.
"I'm very grateful to have been chosen for this great opportunity," Kirkwood said.
"I feel like I'm heading into my most exciting and prosperous season of karting and I will continue to work hard and do my best in each and every race."
The youngster certainly didn't disappoint in his first weekend under the Walldinger banner. Kirkwood raced in four different categories in the WKA Zoom Zoom Nationals at Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, S.C., last weekend, winning one category and finishing second in another, along with a sixth and 10th in the other two.
KartSport and Sparco are also involved with the scholarship and Allmendinger expects to announce more backers in the next few weeks. For now, he simply hopes his newest protégée will quickly benefit from the scholarship.
"We're thrilled to have Kyle on board. He has shown great potential throughout his eight years of karting and maintains a very positive attitude both on and off the track," said Allmendinger, who finished a career-best 15th overall in the Cup standings with the Richard Petty team last season, before joining Penske this year.
"It will be cool to get some exposure for him and have him go out there and win more races and move up."
The scholarship comes more than a decade after Allmendinger, named A.J. after four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt, was spotted by Tracy at a karting event.
The 2003 Champ Car (now merged with the IndyCar Series) champion offered Allmendinger mentoring and money to help him get ahead of the pack. It worked, and Tracy's connections in the racing world led to seats and championships in the now defunct Barber Dodge (2002) and Champ Car Atlantic series (2003). In addition, two years after Tracy gave him a push, Allmendinger caught the attention of Red Bull and signed as a driver in its development program in 2002.
He moved to Champ Car's RuSport Team in 2004 and quickly showed that he had the makings of a champion. He took the series rookie crown and also won Autosport's prestigious rookie of the year award, which goes to the best first-year driver in any series on the planet. To win the Autosport award, Allmendinger beat out Formula One driver Christian Klien, the Sprint Cup's Kasey Kahne, and former F1 driver Justin Wilson, who was also a Champ Car rookie that year.
The next season, he finished fifth overall in the championship, taking six top-5s in 13 starts. In 2006, Allmendinger was dumped by RuSport after four races and quickly moved to the Forsythe outfit, where he became Tracy's teammate. The switch sparked an inspired performance from Allmendinger, who won five of his next eight starts, including the Toronto Indy on the streets of Exhibition Place. He eventually ended the year third overall in points before announcing that he would move to Red Bull's new NASCAR team in 2007.
While Tracy's generosity years ago gave Allmendinger the initial idea for the scholarship, the Penske driver also feels that supporting and encouraging the next generation is part of his job.
"I think it's all of our duties to try to do this to a certain extent," Allmendinger said.
"We are very fortunate to be where we are and obviously there's a lot of stress there and sometimes you lose sight of that. But in this day and age, it's tough for kids trying to move up and get a chance — my parents mortgaged their house three different times and if it weren't for the help I got I still wouldn't have been able to make it."
Besides, Allmendinger said, he understands firsthand why kids love to kart.
Even though his busy 36-race Sprint Cup schedule leaves him with little downtime, when he does take a moment to relax, it usually involves a racetrack and a go-kart.
"It's funny, when you're karting when you are young, it's all about having fun, but all you think about is being a big time racer. Then, when you become a big time racer, you think 'Man, there's a lot of pressure here and I just want to go back to karting and play,'" he said.
"It's about going out there and becoming a kid again, and it's better than any workout you can do in a gym. One thing that gets lost about karting is that it's really family-oriented — you go out with your son or daughter to be a family hanging out. That's what my parents did with me, and that's what is most important."
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