‘Change Is the Only Constant’
INDIANAPOLIS (March 22, 2011) – Named after St. Petersburg, Russia, Florida’s “Sunshine City” is also home to the opening race on the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule – Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
The first race of every season is always full of hope after a team or a driver makes any offseason changes. Conversely, teams or drivers coming off a successful season try to do as little as possible to change what worked right for them the previous year. Alex Tagliani fits into both of those categories as he approaches round one of the 17-race IndyCar Series schedule.
By all appearances, little has changed in or around Tagliani’s No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins Dallara/Honda/Firestone Indy car and his team. The key ingredients that carried the first-year IndyCar Series team to a solid inaugural season still remain. The same crew members, the same cars, the same sponsors and the same driver have all returned for the second season. That consistency is what the team was hoping to carry through the offseason and into 2011.
In a famous quote, however, female racing pioneer, writer and author Denise McClugagge seems to say change is to be expected and embraced: “Change is the only constant. Hanging on is the only sin.”
One thing did change for Tagliani and team in the offseason. It was a big change, and it’s a change that has this team infused with confidence and optimism.
When the No. 77 is unloaded from its transporter in the St. Petersburg paddock, it will be a car that’s now part of Sam Schmidt Motorsports (SSM) after Tagliani and his co-owners sold the team to Schmidt just three weeks ago. It’s a change Tagliani and crew embrace. Owned by former driver Sam Schmidt, SSM is one of the most successful teams in the INDYCAR paddock.
SSM has won more championships (four) and races (37) than any other team in the stepping-stone Firestone Indy Lights division. The team also has experience in the IndyCar Series as it has qualified 10 cars in the Indianapolis 500 and has one IndyCar Series pole position. As a racing team, SSM is celebrating its 10th anniversary. And, what better way to kick things off than with a brand new team in its stable?
Alex Tagliani, Driver of the No. 77 B&W Dallara/Honda/Firestone for Sam Schmidt Motorsports:
How is the transition going from being an owner-driver back to just being a driver?
“Things have changed, even though it’s business as usual with the same guys and the same everything. Being the second year, we’re looking forward to building on what we started and learned last year. It was a discovery last year pretty much everywhere. Part of our season, we were trying to build a team more than we were trying to make our car go fast. This year, we’re on a different program and we’re excited to start. With Sam, we have a boss. We have somebody who has experience in racing. He has won championships and has been successful in Indy Lights. He brings a lot of intensity to the team because everybody knows where he’s from and what he’s been through. Everybody has this little extra edge inside looking to give him his first win in IndyCar. I don’t think it’s illogical to think we have the capability to try to get a win or two this year. For sure, we need to get our stuff right. There are going to be some tracks that are going to be better for us than others. We have to throw a lot of things at the car to understand and to improve ourselves and build our ‘toolbox,’ like the engineers say. I think the first four races are good races for us and I think we can do really well.”
What is your mindset entering the first IndyCar Series race in more than a year as just the driver?
“I’m actually happy to not be the guy in charge and just focus on my driving and let the team do what they do best. In this world of INDYCAR, especially this year, with so much more time on the broadcasts, you need to provide more content, be able to expose your sponsors and to help the branding of the team. So it already takes so much time outside of the cockpit to represent the team well and represent the sponsor well, commercially, that it’s better if you don’t have too many hats to wear.”
How did you get together with Sam Schmidt, and how is it to work with him?
“(Wife) Bronte and I had the chance to spend a little time with Sam. I had a lot of fun. He’s a really cool guy. He’s actually quite funny, I would say, kind of easy-going. What I liked the most is the fact that, when racing gets closer and closer, you can see he’s a passionate guy for the sport and he really wants the team to succeed. His level of interest in our team was that he saw a little bit of success and speed right away and it was giving him the feeling that, at some point, he could get back into the ownership with a strong entity, a strong group. This team did well in year one and, with him now, I think we are more motivated than ever to bring some success to him and please him in his first year back as a fulltime owner at the IndyCar level.”
What does Sam bring to the team?
“He has a lot of experience, and he’s bringing a lot of passion and intensity to our team. We feel great to have him as a leader. Last year, I was seen as one of the team owners but, obviously, I was not so much there to be the head guy. I was happy to take my driver spot and I was happy with that. Basically, Sam is bringing spirit to the troops. It’s basically the duty of a head coach and general manager and motivator. He came to the shop and, from his first speech, he brought motivation to us. From the first race on, we really want to showcase who we are, what we have, and showcase him as a team owner in the IZOD IndyCar series.”
What expectations have you placed on yourself and the team this year?
“I would love to be able to have a strong championship result and finish in the top-five. That would be absolutely outstanding. What happened to us last year, we had lots of really outrageous performances, like qualifying on the front row at Brazil, qualifying fourth in Sonoma, finishing fourth at Mid-Ohio, sitting on the pole three-quarters of the day at Indy, qualifying fifth at Kansas, sixth at Iowa. We know we have what it takes to be in the top-five. We know we can do it. We need to find a way to understand why we were so fast here and not so fast there. I think the day we get that understanding is the day we will be able to put together a much more consistent result and a much more consistent car for the full season. And that will make it easier to answer the question of when we can aim for a top-five finish.”
As a team, where do you think you’ve improved over last year?
“The thing that was upgraded with the fact that, in the wintertime this year, the team worked on improving, and it improved by knowing what the data was on the track. Last year, in the wintertime, it was basically painting the floor in the race shop, installing air lines, basically building a structure and a team more than developing a racecar – doing parts inventory, things like that. The team looked more like a race team this winter with development in mind. Now, year two for us and year one for Sam Schmidt Motorsports will be building on everything we learned from the data we accumulated last year, looking back at St. Pete, looking back at Long Beach, and approaching these races with a little bit more knowledge than we had last year. Last year, at Long Beach, we had absolutely nothing to look back on. We were blind, and that’s where our lack of consistency showed since we weren’t fast at that place and we didn’t know how to make it fast at that place.”
What are your thoughts on the IZOD IndyCar Series on the eve of the first race of the season?
“Timing is great, since IZOD joined the series, Randy (Bernard, president of INDYCAR) has worked very aggressively with IZOD, and making sure the series is on the rise. We’ve seen a lot of movement. We’ve seen a lot more attention. It’s pleasing the sponsors. We have a great group of drivers in the series. So, I think it’s where it needs to be. There’s always room for improvement, but it seems like the series has made huge steps in a lot of areas this season. That’s why the timing seems perfect for SSM to join the series. I think we can be in the lead group of the series but, again, St. Pete is going to be the reality check.”
Were you surprised on what transpired with Firestone over the last month?
“I’m very excited Firestone is back next year and the year after. When the original announcement came out that they were leaving, I was pretty shocked because I never imagined myself driving on anything else besides Firestone and Bridgestone. Since I started driving Indy cars, that’s all I’ve ever driven on. That’s the only tire I’ve ever been on. I think it’s great they decided to continue with the league. I think it would’ve been a big disappointment for them to leave. I think they’re a great company and they have great supporters in the league. They have helped us, as teams, to create a better commercial platform for sponsors, and I think they’re going to continue in that direction. They know what we need, they know the tracks, so they are the company that has the most amount of experience in the racing tire business for Indy cars. Racing is a business where it’s very important to have stability and, by them coming back, it’s great for our stability and I think it’s great for the series.”
What advice would you give Sebastien Bourdais as it appears he is returning to the series?
“It’s difficult to give him advice because he’s driven so many different kinds of cars. He’s more experienced than a lot of the guys out there. He’s driven Formula 1 and prototypes and Le Mans and Indy cars and Champ cars. He had more experience than me when I got here because he already drove the Indy 500 with Newman-Haas. He was doing that race plus the whole season in Champ Car. It’s great that he found a spot in our series, and I’m looking forward to getting back on the track with him and fight. This car is a little bit different. I thought the Champ car to the Indy car, the normally aspirated engine without the turbo, the way the car wanted to be driven, I thought there were a lot of things this car had that I wasn’t used to. But, after a couple of races as a driver, you get used to it and, as a professional, you learn to adapt. That’s what makes a good driver – the ability to adapt. I think he’ll do just fine.”
Rob Edwards, Team Manager of the No. 77 B&W Dallara/Honda/Firestone for Sam Schmidt Motorsports:
Where do you see the team heading into the season opener compared to this time last year?
“Last year, while we had high expectations, internally, we were off everyone else’s radar. Going into our second season, we have a year’s worth of knowledge from working together last season. Alex has the same people around him in 2011 as he did in 2010 and we have worked through an aggressive development program in the offseason. Once we get to St. Pete, what we achieved last year will mean nothing if it was not the foundation for greater success this season. The ingredients are there, we have to execute.”
With the purchase of the team by SSM, have you adjusted any goals for the season? What are some of the goals for the season?
“We haven’t adjusted any goals with the purchase of the team by SSM, but we will be stronger because of it. Sam has a very successful Indy Lights team and our goal is to make sure he has a very successful IndyCar team to go with it. Sam will help our team to be stronger and more stable. Sam will be a benefit to Alex in ways that I cannot. Our goal is to maximize our result at each of the 17 races. If we can make our performance more consistent over the course of the season and pull our worst races from 2010 up to the level of our best races from 2010, then we will achieve our ultimate goals.”