Penske Racing has announced that AJ Allmendinger is going to drive the IZOD sponsored No. 2 Team Penske car at the IndyCar Series race at Barber Motorsports Park and the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Huzzah for him! Also, a huzzah is order for IZOD for doing something to promote the series that is branded with their corporate name. Way to step up, corporate-partner-looking-for-a-way-out. But I digress. This is about AJ Allmendinger being the whipping boy for our politically correct sports/corporate/media world.
Allmendinger has an impressive curriculum vitae: he won 5 races and had 14 podiums in 40 Champ Car races and racked up 29 top tens and 2 poles in 174 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events. Add to that his Atlantics Championship and his Rolex 24 win and you have criteria for a racer. But he has a couple of other stats, too. In 2009 he was arrested for drunk driving and in 2013 he tested positive for Adderall. In today’s rush-to-judgement society, he had become a pariah. The corporate masters at NASCAR, a series founded on bootleggers racing their hopped up liquor delivery vehicles, could not stomach a young driver making such mistakes.
And Allmendinger did make mistakes. He got behind the wheel drunk and was punished for it. As far as we know, he did not get behind the wheel under the influence of amphetamines. He served a punishment for that, too. Fair enough.
What bothers me is how modern society conveniently ignores that our athletic heroes have always pushed the envelope when it comes to enhancing something, whether it’s performance or partying. The media, mainstream or social, absolutely delights in making these activities public. We revel in it. And the hypocrisy makes me shake my head. From Babe Ruth’s epic appetites to Mickey Mantle’s hang-over home runs to Brad Keselowski’s giant championship beer, we cheer the victors’ substance abuse when they win, but wait in the weeds to pounce on them when they fall off the championship pedestal. And the entire episode will be sponsored by Miller Lite, Budweiser, Florida Lottery, Five Hour Energy, Amp Energy, Burger King, McDonald’s, and Cheez-It’s. NASCAR endorses drinking, gambling, liquid energy, and gluttony as long as they pay for the props. That’s just business as usual in America. The hypocrites rule, as they always have.
At least IndyCar and Roger Penske are willing to overlook Allmendinger’s poor choices. The history of open wheel racing is just as wild and wooly as its tin-top brethren. The 1950’s and 60’s are chock full of stories of drinking and carousing. Back then this behavior was “colorful,” not anti-social. IndyCar has said very little about Allmendinger and for good reason. He is a driver, not a morality play. A corporation that advertises the party in the Snake Pit at its biggest event needs to be careful about seeming too pious.
Our values have not really changed. What has changed is corporate America’s perception of its public image. They have cleaned and bleached the drivers so much that they are merely shills for the nervous sponsors. Even Tony Stewart has matured now that he owes his living to his sponsors. Most recently, NASCAR fined Denny Hamlin $25,000 for simply stating the truth about the Gen 6 car. Remember, it’s always rainbows and unicorns unless we decide to let you wreck each other for entertainment and ratings.
IndyCar still allows its drivers to be themselves. Josef Newgarden, Will Power, Helio Castroneves, James Hinchcliff, and Tony Kanaan still entertain us on a human level as well as on the track. My fear is that once IndyCar has the success it deserves, the suits will suck the life out of it with policy and purview.
So welcome to the party, AJ. The IndyCar circus is going to be a perfect fit for you. We don’t care if you raise a little hell and have a personality. I just hope Big Brother doesn’t start watching this series, too.