Sam Schmidt Motorsports Indy 500 Pole Day Report

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Sam Schmidt Motorsports Indy 500 Pole Day Report

Indianapolis Motor Speedway

INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Tagliani won the pole for the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 and his Sam Schmidt Motorsports (SSM) teammate, Townsend Bell, qualified an impressive fourth during the first of two days of qualifying for the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

SSM was the only IZOD IndyCar Series team with two drivers in the top-five once the first day of qualifying was complete.

Tagliani, driver of the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins Dallara/Honda/Firestone for SSM, posted the fastest time in the first segment of qualifying, while Bell, driver of the No. 99 Herbalife24 Dallara/Honda/Firestone for SSM, was fifth on the board. Those runs moved each driver into the “Fast Nine” segment of qualifying at the end of the day. Originally, the “Fast Nine” were required to make at least one four-lap qualifying attempt, with optional attempts if time permitted, but after a rain shower drenched the track, officials declared that each car would get one attempt to qualify for the pole, once the track was dry.

Pole winner Alex Tagliani, Sam Schmidt Motorsports celebrates with team owner Sam Schmidt and crew chief Joe Atkins
Pole winner Alex Tagliani, Sam Schmidt Motorsports celebrates with team owner Sam Schmidt and crew chief Joe Atkins

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

In a drama-filled final hour, with the sun setting behind the main straightaway grandstands at the “World’s Greatest Race Course,” the cars went out in inverted order from their speeds in the first segment, with ninth-fastest Buddy Rice getting the provisional pole with a four-lap average of 225.786 mph. Eighth-fastest Oriol Servia quickly took the pole away from Rice with an average of 227.168 mph and withstood attempts by Will Power and Ed Carpenter.

Bell then took to the course and his average of 226.887 mph put him second on the board behind Servia and both drivers remained 1-2 after the run of 2005 winner Dan Wheldon. Two-time and reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Dario Franchitti was next up and posted three laps above 227 mph, which would have given him the pole position. Amazingly, and to the bewilderment of almost everyone at the Speedway, his car ran out of fuel and he was unable to complete his fourth and final lap.

His Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, Scott Dixon, then blasted around the famed 2.5-mile oval at an average of 227.340 mph and took the pole from Servia, while pushing Bell back to third.

Tagliani was the only driver left in the “Fast Nine,” and let it be known early that he was gunning for the pole with a first lap of 29.5200 seconds at 227.733 mph. All four of his laps were above 227 mph and his cumulative time of 2:38.2613 with an average speed of 227.472 mph gave the Canadian his first Indianapolis 500 pole.

With Tagliani on the pole and Bell with his career-best Indianapolis 500 qualifying effort of fourth, a jubilant celebration took place on pit lane with the entire SSM team, including team owner, Sam Schmidt, who earned his first Indianapolis 500 pole as an owner.

Day one of qualifying is now complete and spots 1-24 were filled, with Tagliani, Dixon and Servia comprising the front row. The remainder of the top-10 is Bell, Power, Wheldon, Rice, Carpenter, Franchitti and Takuma Sato.

Qualifying continues tomorrow with the always eventful “Bump Day.” The final nine spots in the field will be earned through traditional four-lap qualifying from noon-6 p.m. (EDT). Bumping will begin once 33 cars have qualified. The 33 fastest cars will start the 2011 Indianapolis 500.

It’s not just a one-man show. It’s a big team effort here.

Alex Tagliani

Alex Tagliani, Driver of the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins Dallara/Honda/Firestone for Sam Schmidt Motorsports:

Talk about your day.

“Well, you know, it’s difficult to explain. A lot of sacrifice and tears and pain through my career, but you know, I think for this team, just the fact that everybody is still intact, and they accepted my offer to be part of this adventure last year, and they take the risk to lose credibility if the driver is no good and if the resources are not there; and for Joe Atkins from Bowers & Wilkins after a 20-minute phone call, he said, ‘OK, I’ll sponsor you,’ and he got hooked to be the sponsor of this team; and for Sam that looked at it and said this is an entity that is good and deserves to continue; and just for the boys. Like I’m at the shop most every day, and I see how much passion they have to build this car. You know, it’s good already. We sit on the top most of the week, but every time you go into our garage, you know, they always do something on it, and I think that shows how much they care and how much they want to have results. So like I said, it’s very difficult to explain, but to do it here at this particular time, you know, the 100th anniversary, if you participate in the 100th, you didn’t do the first one and you won’t do the 200th, so this just happens once. (Laughter.)”

How important was it for you to have someone like Allen McDonald who’s already won this race with Andretti Green?

“Allen is a guy that 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 pole in street course and road course, but here? He’s amazing. He has this patience and this plan prior to start running the car where as a driver you ‑‑ you know, 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 start 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 a lot. He knows the track with a lot of particularity when it’s windy and the temperature, 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 allows me to be pretty good with the tools when I need 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 in 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, the guys, they just like working with Allen because Allen gives them a chance to be part of this group and developing the car through the winter. You know, Sam allowed them to pretty much do everything they wanted because he believes in the capabilities that 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.”

Alex Tagliani, Sam Schmidt Motorsports with team owner Sam Schmidt
Alex Tagliani, Sam Schmidt Motorsports with team owner Sam Schmidt

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

Alex, your competitor Scott Dixon said that you had worked primarily on qualifying through this week. Is that true, or did you do some race setup?

“No, I mean, early in the week we were on pretty heavy downforce with a full tank, so obviously the tires were better than they’re going to be when you’re going to have full tanks. But we know what the car has in regards of speed with the downforce. But yes, you know, I think Scott realized that we don’t have the luxury to go out there and risk a car that is capable of being on pole, and it was the smart approach. I think knowing it from the NASCAR guys, when they have a car that is very good, they just never run it other than at that track, and that’s why they keep accumulating cars in their shop, because they’re just getting paranoid that that car is just good at that particular track. So this car is the car I drove last year. It was fast. It unloaded fast. If you feel that you have a shot to be on the pole for the 100th, you’re not going to go out there and draft people and put yourself at risk. And Rob Edwards, the manager, and with Sam, they said, past 5:00 you guys pull back in the garage because it’s going to get crazy out there, lots of tows, and we just followed the plan, and I think that’s why we’re here tonight.

It would seem that your team has more rights to gripe than most other teams. Look at the things that have happened, not only with Sam, obviously with his situation in the past, but all the events of the last winter for you, and yet your attitude, folks are always smiling, and here you are now. Is there some special thing that you’re doing to try to intentionally stay positive, and has that paid off, or is that just something that’s part of the people who are there?

“A bit to anticipate your question, I think 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 that Rob Edwards has accumulated over the years working for Walker, 16 years with the same team, when he picked up the phone and he called the guys, three quarters of the team, I worked with them in the past, and you know, didn’t take long for them to accept. And when we work together, we’re just ‑‑ 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. You know, like we don’t put our sweat, our tears, our effort just to come here and parade and just say we’re part of the Indy 500 or we’re just going to compete in IndyCar. And 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 seat. I wanted to be in the seat. But now we have a leader in Sam, who has shown trust in us very quickly, and that’s why the chemistry just continues. Just now we want to win for our leader, because there’s a lot more pride when there’s someone on top that controls us and gives us a direction than when the driver is in the seat and his partner is in Montreal. It was the wrong, I think, structure. I think there’s more to come from this.”

You are obviously on a very happy high right now, but just a comment. I think as the week unfolds you’ll come to understand how many other people who followed your week, how many of those you made happy and how many people will end up being just cheered up by what you both have done.

Well, you know, it’s my third time here at Indy.

Alex Tagliani

“Yeah, I realize a bit. I tried to be available as much as possible in the garage to the fans. Like I said before, the one thing that also makes me very happy is that I’ll be able to get rid of some beers that I have in the bus because Joe Atkins from Bowers likes to drink his beers, and with the pole we’ll get rid of the beers. But also, all the people that ‑‑ but also everyone for some reason, is like a little bit tired of the domination of the Penskes and the Ganassis, everyone that came and cheered for us and bet on us, I’m happy that we didn’t make them lose money.”

How do you feel about your (swimming) pool invoice now?

“Very happy. Yeah, my wife is very frugal, and like we were shopping for furniture because we actually have like rented furniture in the condo now here in Indy. So I wanted like a coffee table for the new place, and she said, no, no coffee table, you can’t spend that. So now she just told me that I can have the coffee table that I wanted. And the other day, it started like being a bad day. It was last Friday, and I opened my phone, I get like this $2,600 invoice, my pool is broken, the pool guy has to repair it and all kinds of things, and I was like, ‘Oh, I really hope that we’ll stay on the top; maybe I can get a bit of money and pay that invoice.’ And then Castroneves goes out and starts drafting just to be like – I was pissed; I said it right here, give me my five minutes of fame and my check. But now it’s a much bigger check. So I’m happy for this team and for Sam and for all the guys. I think more than the money and all of that, I think it’s the timing is great for what we’ve done this week.

Last year you kind of surprised everyone when you made the Fast Nine, and this year you repeated it and now claimed the pole. Talk about the difference between last year and this year and how you went through that.

“Well, you know, it’s my third time here at Indy. The first year I went through a big roller coaster, as well, came out with the Rookie of the Year. But it was not easy. I had bad luck and luck to be back in the field at the end, but I felt the pain of this musical chair and pulling out of line and not wanting to risk, and we paid the price at the end. And then last year I was on the other side of the fence. We were very strong from the beginning. But this year I think is just ‑‑ how important it is for a team to continue on what they built. You know, it’s not very easy to be a one-car team on the weekends. Normally we don’t have the luxury to have people like Dan Wheldon and Townsend Bell to come and look at data and work together and improve bit by bit when it’s getting so competitive. And that’s why teams like Ganassi and Penske have multiple cars, because they feel like it’s an advantage. So this year I think it’s just because we have been strong last year and over the winter, the crew and the engineering group built on it with very little change aerodynamically in the car and in the tires, it shows the potential that this team has. When we’re in the window and we unload fast, I think we’re pretty much on the top. But it’s difficult when we unload and we’re not in the window; being a one-car team at road courses we’re struggling a bit because we’re throwing the dice. But here I think it’s a good place to show that the team is very, very strong.”

Townsend Bell, Sam Schmidt Motorsports
Townsend Bell, Sam Schmidt Motorsports

Photo by: Covy Moore

Townsend Bell, Driver of the No. 99 Herbalife24 Dallara/Honda/Firestone for Sam Schmidt Motorsports:

It looked like maybe you were going to hang on that front row for a while. That would have been really exciting, but nonetheless, tremendous.

“Yeah, we gave it everything we had. That’s a pretty good four laps, I think, for the car, and really stoked for the team, obviously for Alex. He’s got a rocket ship. He’s done a great job, and he deserves every ounce of the speed he’s got out of that thing. We’re happy with our run. The Herbalife car has been strong since the moment I got into it, and with my engineer, Gerald, we’ve continued to make it better and better and felt like we’ve made smart decisions, and here we are, we’re inside the second row and ready to rip.

If you could talk about everything this team has done with both cars this month in terms of not just bringing them up to speed but really setting the pace this whole month, being among the leaders.

“Yeah, it’s pretty impressive when you look at the organization that Sam has and the amount of things that he has going on, and to still produce the quality that he’s given us here is exceptional. You know, my car got off an airplane from Brazil a day late because of the rain delay down there, and the team just hustled big time, guys were working through the night to try to get the thing turned around and to oval spec and Indy spec, and they pulled it off. It’s great to have a chance to go fast here, and full credit to the team for making it happen.”

Can you talk about the 24 on your hat?

“Well, my sponsor Herbalife, they’ve been with me for four years, they’ve got a great new line of products called 24. It’s for the 24-hour athletes. There’s seven different products in the range. It’s ‑‑ a big part of going fast and going fast for a long time is having good nutrition, so that’s what they’ve put together.”

Do you use the products?

“Of course, yeah, every day. Since I’ve had an association with that company, Herbalife has just given me tremendous support in terms of understanding the nutrition I need before, during and after racing. I used to think just a bowl of pasta and some water was the way to go, but with this new 24 line it’s pretty impressive what they’ve come up with. They’ve worked three years on it, and they’re launching it at the Indy 500 and the Tour de California back home.”

With the rain we had a little bit different format for the top nine. Everybody only got one shot instead of being able to make multiple attempts. Did you like that format? Could we be on to something here?

“I liked it. You know, for us, I think if Penske, Ganassi had a little bit more time, there’s probably a few more tricks in their bag than what we had. I was quite pleased that we were able to make a solid run earlier today to get into the top nine, was pleased with that. And then the fact that it’s just one shot, do what you can, I like those odds for us. So I was happy with that. I think it’s exciting. It seemed like the fans liked it. Just standing out there you could feel a buzz and an energy and an excitement about the way things played out. It was pretty cool.”

I couldn’t wait to get out there and just let loose.

Townsend Bell

Given how you’re really just running this race this season so far, how much additional pressure does that put on you to perform and do well?

“You know, it’s a really good pressure because it’s not so much pressure, it’s like I savor every minute here. If this is the only race I do this year ‑‑ maybe I’ll do more, I never know. But you just savor every minute you’re at this wonderful speedway and driving cars fast and all of that good stuff. But yeah, I just savor it. You know, it’s a little stressful. I find the first round of qualifying a little stressful because we don’t have a backup car. We’re out flirting at the very limit, and there’s a little extra pressure just to make sure you don’t screw up and make sure you’re in the race. But then once I know that I’m in the top nine, man, I couldn’t wait to get out there and just let loose. I love it. I want this month to go twelve.”

Sam Schmidt, Owner, Sam Schmidt Motorsports:

This is a great personal accomplishment for Tagliani, but what a day for your race team.

“Yeah, I mean, I’m rarely at a loss for words, but this has been difficult ever since it happened to put it into words. I mean, I grew up in California and watched Rick Mears and just dreamed about coming to this place and then was fortunate ‑‑ my dad was actually a team owner here for the Donald Davidsons of the world in 1978 and ‘79, and they didn’t have any great success, and then started coming here, drove here in ‘97 and ‘99. It’s truly huge. Whether it’s the 100th anniversary, whether it’s the adversity that this team has overcome and Alex has overcome personally, whatever, I mean, it’s just really, really large.”

It would seem that your team has more rights to gripe than most other teams. Look at the things that have happened, not only with you, obviously with your situation in the past, but all the events of the last winter for Alex, and yet your attitude, folks are always smiling, and here you are now. Is there some special thing that you’re doing to try to intentionally stay positive, and has that paid off, or is that just something that’s part of the people who are there?

“I don’t know how long people have known Alex, but I don’t think he has a problem with that as far as a positive attitude. For me when something like this happens you can either choose to stay at home and watch ESPN all day or you can get out and do something with your life. For me, I’ve done a lot of things in my life. The thing that made getting up every morning worthwhile, beyond my faith and my family pushing me, was the ability to come out here and compete. I make no bones about it; I’d much rather be in the driving seat rather than in the owning seat, but this is definitely the second-best thing, and this is really special because at the end of the day, as Alex has said a couple times, it’s much more difficult to put the right group of people together, and it’s much more challenging. To get this all to work is really difficult. So at the world’s greatest venue in the world, to have this today is ‑‑ it just makes it all that much more special. I mean, I was more than willing to pack it in at 4:00 o’clock, take the trophy and go home with that rain delay. I was calling on everybody I knew with Cherokee blood lines to do a rain dance. But the reality is this is much more special to go out there and actually do it and beat them at their own game, so to speak, and with a much smaller operation, much less funding, and I think that’s what the Indy Racing League and the IndyCar Series is all about.”

Pole winner Alex Tagliani, Sam Schmidt Motorsports celebrates with team owner Sam Schmidt
Pole winner Alex Tagliani, Sam Schmidt Motorsports celebrates with team owner Sam Schmidt

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

Obviously today is a very special day for you and Alex, and I’m sure one of the lowest points in your life was probably when you had your accident in 2000. Could you just talk about where today rates in your life?

“Yeah, I’ve definitely had some roller coasters in my life, just – where does that rate? It’s for sure near the top. First and foremost, my wife and my kids are the most important thing in my life, so seeing some of their accomplishments and seeing how they’ve grown up to be spectacular kids is really good. I’m sure it has nothing to do with me. But that’s really special. And leading the race here in ‘99 myself was really a special moment, and both Arie and I still feel like we should have won that race, but we didn’t. So there’s always just this burning desire to come back and finish what’s unfinished. So this is – and then you’ve got the Indy Lights program. We’ve won five out of seven races here, which is spectacular, knock on wood, but it still doesn’t fill the void of winning the best against the best. This is one huge step forward, and we knew ‑‑ like Alex said, we knew coming in that it was fast, but as several people have seen over the years here, lots of funny things happen here, and so you’ve not only got to get ‑‑ there’s races within races. You’ve got to get through every practice. You’ve got to get through every day, and we had our spins with the rain this month, just all of these roller coasters this month. From a racing perspective and an accomplishment perspective for the team, for Alex, for myself, this is right up there.”

Notes of Interest:

· This is the first Indianapolis 500 pole for Tagliani. His previous best start was fifth in 2010, with the FAZZT Race Team.

· Tagliani is the first Canadian-born driver to win the Indianapolis 500 pole. The previous best starting spot for a Canadian driver was third, by Scott Goodyear in 1995. Tagliani is a native of Lachenaie, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal.

· This is the fifth career Indy car pole for Tagliani. His last pole came in 2003 at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, while competing in Champ Car.

· This is the second Indy car pole for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. The team’s other pole came in 2001 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway with Jaques Lazier driving.

· Tagliani became the first driver to win the pole carrying the No. 77. He also became the first driver with a double-digit number to win the pole since Tony Kanaan took No. 11 to the top spot in 2005.

· Bell’s fourth starting spot is his career best in the Indianapolis 500. His previous highest starting spot was 10th in 2010.

· This is the first time since 2005 that three different teams occupy the front row for the Indianapolis 500, with Sam Schmidt Motorsports (Tagliani, pole), Target Chip Ganassi Racing (Dixon, second) and Newman/Haas Racing (Servia, third). In 2005, the front row was comprised of Andretti Green Racing (Kanaan, pole), Marlboro Team Penske (Sam Hornish Jr., second) and Delphi Fernandez Racing (Scott Sharp, third).

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Tags canadian pole winner, sam schmidt, tagliani, townsend bell