Can Tagliani continue hot Indy streak?
Alex Tagliani arrived for his Indianapolis 500 Media Day interview without any handlers or press agents. Dressed in jeans, with tattoos just peeking out below his shirt sleeves, the likeable, low-key Canadian settled into his seat.
Happily and earnestly, Tagliani answered questions from a small handful of reporters in what felt more like a casual conversation among friends. It was in stark contrast to the commotion one booth away, where a mass audience surrounded Danica Patrick -- television cameramen aggressively jockeying for position among a congested crowd of reporters competing for a chance to ask a question.
Patrick barely made the race – her starting spot was only assured with an hour left in qualifying – while Tagliani, driving for the under-budget, under-estimated Sam Schmidt Motorsports team, went out and won the pole position over the A-squad of favorites from the marquee Penske Racing, Target Ganassi operations and Patrick’s Andretti Autosport team.
But what Tagliani lacks in press attention, he makes up for in popularity with the fans, even with his competitors. Everybody loves an underdog – especially in Indianapolis, where on Sunday Tagliani will lead one of the most intriguing and perplexing Indy 500 starting fields in recent memory.
“Everyone, for some reason, is like a little bit tired of the domination of the Penskes and the Ganassis and I’m so grateful that everyone that cheered for us and bet on us. .. I’m glad that we didn’t make them lose money,’’ said Tagliani, who was second quickest to Ganassi’s Scott Dixon in Friday’s final practice session.
For seven drivers, including four of the top eight starters – Tagliani’s teammates Townsend Bell and Dan Wheldon, plus Buddy Rice and Ed Carpenter -- this is their first IndyCar race of the year. For some, it will be the only race of the year.
Wheldon and Rice are former Indy winners. And Bell and Carpenter both have top-five finishes here. Their success here and the speed they’ve shown this month makes them more formidable than the typical underdog.
“It would be great for the sport if one of us won,’’ said Davey Hamilton, who will roll off 15th in his first IndyCar start of the year. “People want to see someone else, they’re tired of the Ganassi and Penske domination.’’
Both Tagliani and Hamilton know that despite the fan support, they are still considered long shots come race day. Penske, Ganassi and Andretti have won the past six Indy 500s and, generally speaking, hold an advantage over the smaller teams when it comes to experience, resources and pit-crew performance.
But even defending race winner Dario Franchitti is convinced the depth of the field is greater than ever. He thinks 15 cars hold a legitimate shot at winning.
For Tagliani, winning the pole position gave the team the kind of momentum it could take advantage of should everything fall into place Sunday in the race. It many ways, it feels like they’ve already won.
Tagliani’s team owner, Sam Schmidt, is a former IndyCar driver who is now confined to a wheelchair after suffering paralyzing injuries in a crash at Walt Disney World Speedway in 2000. He led the 1999 Indianapolis 500 race but crashed out and said he felt like Tagliani’s pole completed some unfinished business here.
He cried when pole qualifying ended and Tagliani had officially claimed top honors.
“I’m happy about the pole, but I know that especially for a guy like Sam (Schmidt) and what our team is showing, that it’s possible to do it,’’ Tagliani said. “Anything is possible. That’s something that means a lot to us.
“I’ve always been a driver that doesn’t take anything for granted in life, I always appreciate everything that happens to me. But since I started driving for Sam, I think I’m racing for a different reason now.
“I want to perform because I saw that for a little bit of a result, I made him happy. He’s driving through me. His passion is through me and I have this luck to be sitting in the car. He would like to be in my position, but he can’t.
“Every driver wants to be in the biggest team possible, with the most amount of money, but I think I’ve actually found my spot with this team. This is my attitude. I want to be the one who receives the challenge. The reward is much greater when you can be on the pole in front of the big teams.”
Imagine the reward for beating them in the biggest race in the world.