Tagliani: I Feel Privileged To Be At Indy

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 16 2009
Alex Tagliani concentrates on qualifying at Indy Saturday.

Alex Tagliani concentrates on qualifying at Indy Saturday.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Open-wheel reunification has been a back-burner topic this month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but never far from the heart-and-mind of Alex Tagliani.

The native of Quebec launched his Champ Car career in 2000, in the midst of the schism between  the Indy Racing League and the Championship Auto Racing Teams.

“You can never predict how your career is going to turn out, but I was always in a seat and never had the chance to race at Indy,” Tagliani said Saturday at IMS, after he had qualified for the 93rd Indianapolis 500 as a 36-year-old rookie. “Now that the two series joined back together as one open-wheel series, it’s the best thing that could ever happened for me. That’s how I got the chance to come here. I feel very privileged and honored. I’ve been enjoying every minute of being at the Speedway.”

The final 11 starting positions for the May 24 race were provisionally filled as 13 drivers combined for 15 qualifying attempts during a session delayed by rain for more than three hours. Rookie Robert Doornbos claimed the top spot available, 23rd, with a four-lap/10-mile qualifying average of 221.692 mph around the 2.5-mile oval. Doornbos will start in the middle of Row 8 with Townsend Bell on his outside.

Row 9 consists of Oriol Servia, Tagliani and Tomas Scheckter, while Row 10 is filled by rookie Mike Conway, E.J. Viso and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

John Andretti, Milka Duno and rookie Nelson Phillipe, provisionally filling Row 11, will have to be prepared to defend their positions on Sunday, as at least three drivers will attempt to bump their way into the field. Buddy Lazier, the 1996 Indy 500 champion, was knocked out of the field by Duno with six minutes remaining.

“We ran a 219, and then we started slowing down,” said Lazier, driver of the No. 91 Hemelgarn Johnson Dallara/Honda. “I think we will be OK tomorrow, but we’ll have to wait and see. We would have liked to get it in today, of course, but I have a lot of confidence in the team. We have a lot of data, and even today we picked up a lot of data. That data is very important. We are looking forward to going fast tomorrow.”

Rookie Stanton Barrett, who failed to qualify in the final attempt of the day, and 2002 pole-sitter Bruno Junqueira, who signed a last-minute deal with team-owner Eric Bachelart of Conquest Racing, will each have three attempts to bump their way into the field.

Tagliani, who made two IndyCar starts last year for Conquest Racing, scored his only Champ Car victory at Road America in 2004. That’s ancient history for a driver who spent last season in the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series, where he won on the streets of Edmonton as part of the IndyCar weekend. That victory put “Tag” back on the open-wheel radar and helped him land this shot at Indy.

“It’s actually unbelievable because when I started my career in CART in 2000, I was a driver that just got a ride,” said Tagliani, driver of the No. 34 Rexall Edmonton Indy Dallara/Honda. “I was racing against (Dario) Franchitti and all these guys, so I felt happy to get a ride. It was the most important thing for me, but I didn’t realize until I drove the first lap (around Indianapolis Motor Speedway) what I missed all these years not having the chance to race at Indy.

“I was on the pole in Fontana and Milwaukee, and I won Elkhart Lake. I had a couple of podiums here and there. You’re happy to have good results at tracks, but nothing made me so emotional than being on this track that first day. I was happy that the engineer said, ‘Out and in,’ on the install lap, because I was like looking all over the place thinking, ‘I’m here; it’s so unbelievable.’^”

Tagliani’s four-lap qualifying average was 220.553 mph. “We left something on the table there on the last lap in Turn 2,” Tagliani said. “I’m very proud of the Conquest team. We didn’t have the most consistent day today. We had a lot of issues with the car. I guess we set the car up for conditions that were much different than they were today, and on top of that, the track temperature and the wind changed, so we had to revisit that. This track is known for that.

“Qualifying day, it’s not the easiest to do. It took us all day until the last minute to put the car in qualifying. We even made a change without trying to test it. I went out in qualifying, and the car was not necessarily better. With the wind and what we did on the car required me to play with the weight-jacker a little bit. So, I was playing with the weight-jacker on the exit of Turn 1and exit of Turn 2 before (Turn) 3. It’s good when you have to do it on the long straightaway, but between (Turns) 1 and 2 there’s not a lot of time. So on the last lap I picked up a lot more push than I was expecting in (Turn) 1, and I was cranked with the wheel. When I tried to hit the weight-jacker to give me some more front grip in Turn 2, I missed the button and then I got into Turn 2 and knew I was going to get a push. I had to downshift in fifth gear. We did a 219-something on the last lap, and it brought our average down.”

Doornbos followed a solid two days of practice with his best-of-Saturday qualifying run in the No. 06T Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing Dallara/Honda.

“I can’t say it’s been a boring month,” said Doornbos, a native of the Netherlands, who was tutored at IMS by two-time race-winner and countryman Arie Luyendyk. “I arrived here with Arie and inspecting the track, he scared me to death in the Pace Car ride. And then I got going in my IndyCar, and I was really quick the first day and the next day, as well. I think we got a little bit too excited because Arie said I probably didn’t need him anymore, and then we took off too much downforce and we crashed.

“We had no spare parts, so I missed the first two qualifying days, and then there is a lot of pressure on these four laps to make the show. The race car is good, but if you’re not in the show, you don’t need the race car. I am very happy and proud to be here now. In Kansas, (qualifying) was easier. I qualified second. Here it’s such a long track, and with the wind picking up, you feel like every lap is a new adventure. Every corner is an adventure because the wind is coming from different angles. It’s a tough four laps, but I’m very proud to do them on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”

Servia’s qualifying effort of 220.984 mph capped a whirwind week that began Wednesday, when he was named to drive the No. 17 The Rahal Letterman DAFCA Special Dallara/Honda. Servia, who finished 11th at IMS as a rookie in 2008 with KV Racing Technology, turned his first practice laps of the month on Thursday.

“I knew we were going to be in the race,” said Servia, who is driving for 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal. “We actually were hoping to be the fastest car today. We didn’t do that, but the car still feels great, and I’m sure we’ll be even better for Sunday (race-day).

“It’s been a great week. I’ve been working for many months to A, get the car going for the season and B, be here. Finally, with Rahal Letterman we were able to put it together, and I’m very pleased. They (Rahal Letterman) won it in ’04 (with Buddy Rice). They won, but they have many years of experience, so they know what they are doing. It’s no secret. When I jumped in the car Thursday, it felt great right away. It really helps to be with good people.”

Scheckter, who qualified for his eighth Indy 500, got into the race via a program with Dale Coyne Racing that didn’t get the native of South Africa onto the track until Friday. “I’m happy to be in the field,” said Scheckter, driver of the No. 19 MONA-VIE Dallara/Honda. “Dale Coyne and everybody with the car have been great. Just putting this together at the last minute has been absolutely crazy. We had hoped for a little bit more speed, but it was a good run (220.212 mph). We knew we weren’t going to set the world on fire. It was extremely windy out there in Turns 3 and 4 and quite a bit of push off Turn 2. At this late stage, we weren’t risking too much on the downforce. We just wanted to get in the show.”

That is the task facing Junqueira, a five-time Indianapolis 500 starter who led 32 laps in 2002. The Brazilian will drive the No. 36 Conquest Racing entry with primary sponsorship from All Sport/Big Red.

“At least I’m here,” said Junqueira, who qualified 15th at IMS last year with Dale Coyne Racing. “In years past I came here looking to start on the pole. Now I’m looking to make the field, but if you run the race you have a chance to win. I’m happy with the opportunity Conquest Racing gave me. I’ve been walking around here two weeks trying to find a ride, and I finally found it. The main thing is to make sure the car works fine today and put it in the field. Then you can work toward having a good race.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 16 2009
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