Healthy, Fit and Hoping To Make History
Roll back the calendar one year and you will find IZOD IndyCar Series driver Alex Tagliani in the worst condition of his professional driving career.
One week before the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened practice for the 2010 Indianapolis 500, Tagliani started sniffling and coughing.
For most people, catching a cold is a minor annoyance. For Tagliani, it messes with his head. The Canadian IndyCar pilot was diagnosed with asthma at a young age. Though he has controlled the asthma well the past 15 years, attacks and severe bouts of bronchitis from his youth were never a distant memory.
Still, Tagliani was not too concerned when the sniffles and cough first started in early May. It didn’t take him long, though, to realize this was no ordinary cold. By midweek, Tagliani was trying every home remedy he could think of to break the cough. He was taking zinc and vitamin C, spending time in long, hot, steamy baths and in saunas. Nothing was working, and he was starting to worry.
As a professional driver, Tagliani had never missed a day of a race weekend due to illness. He even qualified fourth in Australia, once, while experiencing the full effects of food poisoning. For Tagliani, he just wanted to feel better, but he also felt a huge sense of responsibility to his race team, which was only five months old. As a single-car team making its debut at Indy, he knew it needed to get on the track to start building data for qualifying and the race. Up to that point, the driver had simply told his team he was just battling a cold. He did not want them to worry like he was.
When he woke up Thursday morning, just two days before Opening Day at the Speedway, Tagliani had his wife, Bronte, drive him to Methodist Hospital in downtown Indianapolis. A few hours later, and just three miles east of Indianapolis Motor Speedway on 16th Street, Tagliani lay in a hospital bed with an IV in his arm and an oxygen mask strapped to his face. There was no way he would be ready to drive a racecar in two days. So, he broke it to the team. As professionals, they told him they’d be ready when he was.
After 48 hours in the hospital, including 24 spent in intensive care, Tagliani checked out of Methodist and headed to the track Saturday morning. By Sunday afternoon, he was in the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins Dallara/Honda/Firestone racecar practicing. With Tagliani weak and receiving breathing treatments in-between practice runs, the team ran a conservative schedule leading up to Pole Day.
When the 6 p.m. qualifying gun sounded, marking the closing of the track for Pole Day qualifications, few would believe what Tagliani had gone through the past week. Still incredibly weak, Tagliani was the surprise of Pole Day. He sat on the pole for more than half the day and ended with a second-row starting spot. One week later and much healthier, he brought the Bowers & Wilkins machine home in 10th place.
The track is quite daunting the first couple of laps you.
Fast forward one year, and Tagliani has a spring in his step this month. Being fit and healthy has him calm. Knowing his team’s success at Indy last year and the fact it is one year older and under the ownership of Sam Schmidt, has “Tag” optimistic. He stops just short of saying his team could make history in this historic 100th Anniversary of the Indianapolis 500-Mile-Race.
Alex Tagliani, Driver of the No. 77 B&W Dallara/Honda/Firestone for Sam Schmidt Motorsports:
You’re a veteran of the sport of Indy-style racing, yet this will only be your third Indy 500. What does the “500” mean to you?
“You know when you’re a kid and you’re watching the races on TV, it’s pretty easy to see that the Indy 500 has been creating a lot of attention and attraction, so as a kid, you know it’s the biggest motorsports event in the world. When you finally make it, and as a young kid driving go-karts, the hardest thing is just to make it in the sport. Then, once you make it to the big-time, such as IndyCar, the first thing that enters your mind is, ‘I want to win the Indy 500.’ It has to happen. In my situation, I had joined CART, and then the split happened and we don’t race at Indianapolis, anymore. I had to stay with the opportunity that had presented itself to me, which was racing for Forsythe in CART. I worked so hard to make it, but it almost felt like I was in the right place at the wrong time.”
Can you remember your thoughts the first time you rolled out onto the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a racecar?
“It was amazing. You’re looking everywhere and, at the same time, you’re finding it hard to believe that you are actually driving on that track. The complex is quite big, so it’s very impressive. The first lap that you do, you just swallow everything. That’s what I did. The track is quite daunting the first couple of laps you do. But that first lap is one of those laps that you’ll always remember forever.”
What do you remember about your first Indy 500 race morning?
“When I walked through Gasoline Alley with my mom and dad, and I got on the other side in the pit lane and I finally saw the grandstands full, I was like, ‘Holy smoke.’ It was really an eye-opener. You know, you’ve been to races that are very popular and packed, like Long Beach, but there’s nothing like Indy. It’s hard to explain. You know you keep talking about it with your friends and you try to explain it, but you just have to live it to fully understand it. And then, when I finally drove out onto the track for the warm-up laps, I was like, ‘Man, the track got smaller because, all month long, you’re running in front of empty grandstands, so your visibility is wide open. So when everyone is packed in the stands, it feels like the track got narrower because it seems as if you’re driving in a tunnel. It was those two things that shocked me and opened my eyes right away.”
You now live in Indianapolis part of the time. What do you like about the city?
“It’s similar in a way to Montreal, where I’m from. There is the downtown area that is really nice, but there are also a lot of little suburbs with lots of land. It’s fun because you don’t have to go to downtown to live your life. But I also like the people. It’s a city where racing is so important. So, if you’re involved in the sport, you develop friendships very fast and you become part of the city very quickly. That makes you feel like you’re at home. ”
You started of the 2010 month of May in a bed at Methodist Hospital. Explain what you were going through.
“For me, being sick in the racecar has become a fear of mine. It has happened once on a street course in Australia. I’m so conscious of it, now, like when you’re traveling and people are coughing and are sick beside you and you’re trying not to breathe and catch anything. Getting sick on a race weekend is just one thing that I never wanted to happen. At Indy last year, for some reason, I just don’t know what happened. I have asthma, but I’ve controlled it really well for the last 15 years. But my problem, when I get a cold or a cough, the normal person will just have a runny nose and some coughing. But for me, obviously, it seems to attack my lungs more easily than others. So, it started like that, just a little cold and some coughing about a week before Opening Day. But all of a sudden, it’s severe bronchitis and I’m having issues getting rid of it. I started coughing worse and worse. I tried everything – taking hot baths, taking zinc and vitamin C and spending time in a sauna to try and kill it, but nothing was working. So, basically, I went to the hospital and they said, ‘You’re staying here. You’re not going anywhere.’ It was some kind of infection that was much stronger than bronchitis. I just got hit hard. And that’s when I started freaking out. I’m in bed at the hospital and they’re telling me I’m not going to get rid of it quickly. So, they start giving me treatments and antibiotics. I was very lucky to get a very good doctor at Methodist Hospital. He took really good care of me and even took me up to the intensive care unit just to try and accelerate the process of healing. They knew I needed to run. So we didn’t run the first day, but I did manage around 17 laps the second day, but I was pretty sick the whole month. I had to buy a breathing machine to help me breath when I was out of the car. When I was in the car with the tight belts and helmet, it was very difficult for me to breath. It was a pain in the butt to be that way, and now I fully understand why I worry about getting sick on a race weekend. No one likes to be sick at all, and I hate it. And the timing last year couldn’t have been any worse.”
Your team has a new name in Sam Schmidt Motorsports, but it’s essentially the same team as last year. How important is that consistency going into Indy?
“It’s crucial. It’s everything. You see that in various other sports, not just in racing. Racing in general – and especially at Indy –is not a sport you can take for granted. When you go through a year like we did last year with some great performances and a fantastic month of May, the first thing you want to do is capitalize on the stability and continuity with the same car, the same people and the same sponsors. Your approach has to be consistent as possible if you want to maximize great results. I think that’s why the team is very excited and we all can’t wait to hit the track the sooner the better because it feels like just a continuation of where we left off from last year.”
For Indy, we feel we have a great baseline and we’re in the window.
You do have that consistency that’s important to you, but you also have a teammate this year, as well. How can having a teammate at Indy help you?
“You know, we were quite proud at what we were able to accomplish last year as a one-car team and driver. But, being a one-car team is also our biggest challenge throughout the year. With all the variables thrown at you on a regular race weekend, with little track time, that’s where you can fall back on a teammate. We feel the pain sometimes when we pull the car out of the trailer and we’re not even in the window. Those kinds of weekends are challenging without a teammate. For Indy, we feel we have a great baseline and we’re in the window. That’s already a very positive thing. On top of that, now we have someone to look at data with and to hear someone else and what they’re feeling. This will be really important this coming week if we have to fight the weather and have little track time. Now, we’ll have two cars trying different things.”
People say the Indy 500 is actually two events. The first is to get qualified and then the race is second. Talk about qualifying at Indy and the pressure that comes along with it.
“I’m not sure I have the proper vocabulary to express that. It’s crazy. You know you can’t afford any mistakes. Last year, the field was only separated by 4 mph, and I will not be surprised this year if it’s even tighter. The stress and the intensity that you go through just to make sure that everything you decided to put on that particular car for that moment of those four laps is, well, I just can’t describe it. I felt like I had a huge weight lifted off my shoulders after my first qualifying run.”
Without giving away strategy, how does the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins team approach the month of May?
“We have a really good shot at being strong at Indy this year. Our job is just to be patient, to be on the track when we need to be on the track, and not to run when you don’t need to run. We were probably the car that did the least amount of running last year and, with the team building a car at the last minute for Bruno (Junqueira), I think it was a great month. We are more prepared and in a better position to have a stronger showing this year.”