To fans looking for somebody — anybody — to topple the titans of Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing in this Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, Alex Tagliani may be their biggest hope.
The former Champ Car star has gone from a driver scrapping for a full-time gig to one of the top dark horses in the series. Since their debut in the season opener in March, he and the FAZZT Race Team he co-owns have surprised with their solid level of competitiveness. But that level has gone even higher in the run-up to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, as Tagliani was strong in practice and qualified in fifth.
That momentum transferred over to his 500 teammate Bruno Junqueira, who took a second FAZZT car that had only a handful of practice laps to a four-lap qualifying average of 225.662 mph on Bump Day. Had his car been ready for Pole Day, “Junky” would’ve solidly made the Fast Nine pole shootout. The upstart squad definitely has its mojo working.
However, Tagliani, who co-owns the squad with Jim Freudenberg, Andre Azzi and Jason Priestley, knows that an Indianapolis 500 win would bring a massive level of respect to FAZZT — much more than what it’s been able to gain during its first year in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
“It could be a very big trampoline,” Tagliani said on Thursday. “It could launch you very far as a team. The Indy 500 is known as a race that can basically change lives, and as much as it can change the lives of drivers, it can change the life of a race team in general. A win here would definitely create a big buzz for our team.
“It would help us grow more credibility, stability and a lot more respect around the paddock, even if we already have some. When you win a race like this, they remember who you are.”
That’s what Graham Rahal, another driver with the potential to stun the Big Two teams, is banking on. To the American and his father/team owner, 1986 Indy winner Bobby Rahal, “they” are potential full-time sponsors. The two were able to nail down a backer for Indianapolis, but Graham believes that a victory at the Brickyard may be enough to land a permanent one and get his career back on track — whether he stays with the family team or races with another one.
“We’ve got to have a good, solid race and I know one thing that would help my driving career, and that’s to win this thing,” Graham said. “I think that it would be no better story to tell than, through both [Rahal/Letterman Racing’s] struggles in the last year and a half and mine over the past six months, for us to come together and win this would be amazing.
“To have [Bobby] and to have his advice is definitely important, and I guess who knows where I’ll go and whether I’m with a different team or with him after this. I don’t know. I think that Dad’s thought is to certainly try as much as we can to turn this into something long term to help myself and help the team.”
But perhaps the team that could use the most help isn’t FAZZT or Rahal/Letterman.
Vision Racing has been off the grid since it suspended operations over the offseason due to a lack of funding. However, through a partnership with two-time IndyCar champions Panther Racing, its familiar No. 20 is back for the 500, and its driver, Ed Carpenter, provided a Pole Day shocker when he made the Fast Nine.
But unlike Rahal, Carpenter isn’t trying to think about the future. The stepson of former IndyCar leader and current Vision team owner Tony George is focusing strictly on the task at hand, blocking out any type of pressure to perform in order to gain the notice of prospective sponsors.
“I’m here to win the race … I would rather race for the win than just have a nice, easy ride and just be there,” Carpenter said. “With the situation that we were in, with Vision shutting down or even leading up to this, not knowing if I was going to be here, I’m not taking this opportunity for granted.
“Most of the stuff we’re working on is geared for next year … the [Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka] people have been happy and I think they’re trying to help us, whether it’s more from them or some of their other relationships. But like I said, this is the focus. We have to be out of our building June 30, so if nothing else, I’ll be there helping pack up and moving our stuff to wherever it’s gonna go next. It’ll be something to do.”
Everyone who competes in the Indianapolis 500 has the goal of winning, but they can have differing ideas about what winning means to them.
So it goes with these three pilots who stand a puncher’s chance of delivering an upset that would be remembered for years.