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Q and A: Polesitter Talks About Indy 500

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 26 2011

Indianapolis 500 pole winner Alex Tagliani gives his car a smooch near the line of bricks. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Indianapolis – Alex Tagliani’s Week of Fame as Indianapolis 500 pole-sitter may have peaked Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he met the media for the final time before the 100th anniversary edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Tagliani became the first Canadian to qualify on-pole for the Indy 500 on Saturday, when he toured the 2.5-mile IMS oval at an average of 227.472 mph. Tagliani, however, is only part of one of the signature stories of the Month of May.

Tagliani’s No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins Dallara/Honda is owned by former IndyCar driver Sam Schmidt, whose racing career was ended by injuries suffered in a crash while testing that left him paralyzed in January 2000.

Sam Schmidt Motorsports has qualified 12 cars for the Indy 500 since 2001. And for every fan looking for an end to the domination of Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing at IMS, Tag and Sam loom as bona fide contenders Sunday afternoon.

The following is a question-and-answer interview with Tagliani:

Question: You’re a veteran of the sport of Indy-style racing, yet this will only be your third Indy 500. What does the “500” mean to you?

Tagliani: “You know, when you’re a kid and you’re watching the races on TV, it’s pretty easy to see that the Indy 500 has been creating a lot of attention and attraction. So, as a

Alex Tagliani beat the big boys on Pole Day.

kid, you know it’s the biggest motorsports event in the world. When you finally make it – especially as a young kid driving go-karts – you know the hardest thing is just to make it in the sport. Then, once you make it to the big-time, such as IndyCar, the first thing that enters your mind is, ‘I want to win the Indy 500.’ It has to happen. In my situation, I had joined CART, and then the split happened and we don’t race at Indianapolis, anymore. I had to stay with the opportunity that had presented itself to me, which was racing for Forsythe in CART. I worked so hard to make it, but it almost felt like I was in the right place at the wrong time.”

Question: Can you remember your thoughts the first time you rolled out onto the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a racecar?

Tagliani: “It was amazing. You’re looking everywhere and, at the same time, you’re finding it hard to believe that you are actually driving on that track. The complex is quite big, so it’s very impressive, the first lap that you do. You just swallow everything. That’s what I did. The track is quite daunting the first couple of laps you do. But that first lap is one of those laps you’ll always remember forever.”

Question: What do you remember about your first Indy 500 race morning?

Tagliani: “When I walked through Gasoline Alley with my mom and dad and I got on the other side in the pit lane and I finally saw the grandstands full, I was like, ‘Holy smoke.’ It was really an eye-opener. You know, you’ve been to races that are very popular and packed, like Long Beach, but there’s nothing like Indy. It’s hard to explain. You know you keep talking about it with your friends and you try to explain it, but you just have to live it to fully understand it. And then, when I finally drove out onto the track for the warm-up laps, I was like, ‘Man, the track got smaller because, all month long, you’re running in front of empty grandstands, so your visibility is wide open. So when everyone is packed in the stands, it feels like the track got narrower because it seems as if you’re driving in a tunnel. It was those two things that shocked me and opened my eyes right away.”

Question: You now live in Indianapolis part of the time. What do you like about the city?

Tagliani: “It’s similar in a way to Montreal, where I’m from. There is the downtown area that is really nice, but there are also a lot of little suburbs with lots of land. It’s fun because you don’t have to go to downtown to live your life. But I also like the people. It’s a city where racing is so important. So, if you’re involved in the sport, you develop friendships very fast and you become part of the city very quickly. That makes you feel like you’re at home. ”

Question: You started the 2010 month of May in a bed at Methodist Hospital. Explain what you were going through.

Tagliani: “For me, being sick in the racecar has become a fear of mine. It has happened once on a street course in Australia. I’m so conscious of it, now, like when you’re traveling and people are coughing and are sick beside you and you’re trying not to breathe and catch anything. Getting sick on a race weekend is just one thing that I never wanted to happen. At Indy last year, for some reason, I just don’t know what happened. I have asthma, but I’ve controlled it really well for the last 15 years. But my problem,

Alex Tagliani and Sam Schmidt Racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

when I get a cold or a cough, the normal person will just have a runny nose and some coughing. But for me, obviously, it seems to attack my lungs more easily than others. So, it started like that, just a little cold and some coughing about a week before Opening Day. But all of a sudden, it’s severe bronchitis and I’m having issues getting rid of it. I started coughing worse and worse. I tried everything – taking hot baths, taking zinc and vitamin C and spending time in a sauna to try and kill it, but nothing was working. So, basically, I went to the hospital and they said, ‘You’re staying here. You’re not going anywhere.’ It was some kind of infection that was much stronger than bronchitis. I just got hit hard. And that’s when I started freaking out. I’m in bed at the hospital and they’re telling me I’m not going to get rid of it quickly. So, they start giving me treatments and antibiotics. I was very lucky to get a very good doctor at Methodist Hospital. He took really good care of me and even took me up to the intensive care unit just to try and accelerate the process of healing. They knew I needed to run. So we didn’t run the first day, but I did manage around 17 laps the second day, but I was pretty sick the whole month. I had to buy a breathing machine to help me breath when I was out of the car. When I was in the car with the tight belts and helmet, it was very difficult for me to breath. It was a pain in the butt to be that way, and now I fully understand why I worry about getting sick on a race weekend. No one likes to be sick at all, and I hate it. And the timing last year couldn’t have been any worse.”

Question: How important was it for you to have someone like Allen McDonald, who’s already won this race with AndrettiGreen?

Tagliani: “Allen is a guy I would like to have as an engineer until I end my career in open-wheel racing, basically. He’s a great friend. In racing, there’s a lot of emotions, and I’ve said, like not long ago, that we were coming off the wheel because I’m a road-course specialist and I’m not going to be happy until I sit on the pole in a street-course or road-course race. But here? He’s amazing. He has this patience and this plan prior to when we start running the car where, as a driver, it actually relaxes you a lot because you just listen to him, the way he wants to do things. If you’ve seen the statistics last year, we ran probably 89 laps before we started racing. I don’t know how many laps we did before we qualified, but we’re the car that completed the least. He knows this track well. He knows the track with a lot of particularity when it’s windy and with the temperature changes, so I was on track when I needed to be and getting great confidence about the car. And when we started trimming, he’s always telling me what we’re doing and what I should expect, and it allowed me to be pretty good with the tools when I needed to go out there and adjust the car. He plays a big role, and what I like about Allen is also that he allows everybody to have a good spot on the team. Brendon Cleave, he’s an amazing engineer, as well, and he’s acting as a damper and assistant engineer. Robert Gue, Craig Luba and the rest of the guys, they just like working with Allen because Allen gives them a chance to be part of this group and develop the car through the winter. You know, Sam allowed them to pretty much do everything they wanted because he believes in the capabilities they have. So, I think the chemistry is very important. It’s not just a one-man show. It’s a big team effort here.”

Question: It would seem that your team has more rights to gripe than most other teams. Considering the things that have happened, not only with Sam, obviously with his situation in the past, but all the events over the winter for you. Yet, you have a great attitude, and your teammates are always smiling. And here you are now. Is there some special thing you’re doing to try to intentionally stay positive, and has that paid off? Or is it just something that’s part of the people who are part of the effort?

Tagliani: “If you would be able to see us at work during the week, Allen McDonald comes from a pretty big organization. He comes from Andretti Green, and they were running four cars. But he’s really happy. You know, he’s really happy where he is, and I think the respect Rob Edwards has accumulated over the years working for Walker – 16 years with the same team – when he picked up the phone and called the guys, three quarters of the team, all of whom I worked with in the past, it didn’t take long for them to accept. We work together. We fight. We kiss each other. We hug each other. We go for dinner. You know, it’s just like we all know what’s at stake. We want this team to succeed. We don’t put our sweat, our tears, our effort out there just to come here and parade around and just say we’re part of the Indy 500 or compete in IndyCar. This year, it was even more because, for me, when I started, I had this discussion many times – it’s like last year we didn’t have a leader. I accepted to start this team because it was my opportunity to be in the (driver’s) seat. I wanted to be in the seat. But now, we have a leader in Sam (Schmidt), who has shown trust in us very quickly, and that’s why the chemistry just continues. Now, we want to win for our leader because there’s a lot more pride when there’s someone on top who controls us and gives us direction, as opposed to when the driver is in the seat and his partner is in Montreal. It was the wrong, I think, structure-wise. I think there’s more to come from this.”

Question: What are your thoughts on double-file restarts? Is that a concern, or are you just going to race under the rules they give you?

Tagliani: “It’s definitely a worry. In a race like the “500,” double-file restarts can potentially change the outcome of the race, so you have to think about it. I know there is some speculation that we might not do them, or there are going to be some changes. So, until we know for sure, I’m not going to pay too much attention to it. But, obviously, I would prefer the single-file restarts.”

Question: How are you going to approach the one-hour practice session on Friday?

Tagliani: “We’ll just prepare the car the way the engineers want to prepare it for the race and go out there for a couple of runs on full tanks. Evaluate the balance of the car on full tanks. Try a couple of changes to see how the car reacts, and continue to get a good feel for it with the tires cold. Try to follow a couple of cars in traffic. And then park it and be ready to go.”

Question: How hard do you push in Friday’s practice?

Tagliani: “You can push it. You have to be sensible and you have to make sure everything is right. But, most importantly, try and feel the balance and make sure the car is good behind turbulence. And, that’s it.”

Question:What are the emotions going to be like heading out there Sunday morning as the polesitter?

Tagliani: “I don’t know if I can really imagine what it’s going to feel like on Sunday. Now, I think we have a new job to do and the job is to make sure we win that race. At the drop of the green flag, the only thing I’m going to have in mind is running up front, running fast, and trying to be as competitive as we can. What we have accomplished so far is an amazing thing for the whole team, for Bowers & Wilkins, for Sam Schmidt. We’re going to enjoy it until the start of the race and during all of the celebrations prior to the event. We can feel very proud of what we did. Until I jump in the car, we’ll make sure to take some nice souvenir photos at the front of the grid with my mom and dad and my sister and my family and friends. When the green will drop, it will be time to go racing.”

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 26 2011
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