Part One - Special Feature: Indy Experience Finally Sinks In for 2009 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Alex Tagliani INDIANAPOLIS (June 10, 2009) - The checkered flag may have fallen on the 2009 Indianapolis 500 over two weeks ago, but with a trip...
Part One - Special Feature: Indy Experience Finally Sinks In for 2009 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Alex Tagliani
INDIANAPOLIS (June 10, 2009) - The checkered flag may have fallen on the 2009 Indianapolis 500 over two weeks ago, but with a trip to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada to promote the upcoming Rexall Edmonton Indy following the Victory Banquet at Indy and then a race in Texas, Alex Tagliani, the 2009 Indy 500 Chase Rookie of the Year, has just now, finally, been able to take the time to reflect upon his first Indy 500 experience. Having realized a childhood dream, Tagliani wanted to share his experiences with everyone has he remembers the highlights, and the lowlights, of May 2009.
The following is part one of a two part special feature on Tag's month of May.
"When I first showed up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway I obviously had no clue what was going to happen that month. All I knew was that I was pretty lucky that finally in my career I was going to be able to drive at the famed oval," started Tagliani. "At one point, I didn't think I would have the opportunity, so you can't imagine what it meant to me to be part of it, finally."
One couldn't have written a better scenario for Tag's first Indy 500. It wasn't an easy month. It was like riding an emotional roller coaster with the highs and lows that he and the team went through. From the wreck the first week of qualifying, to bump day, to winning the Rookie of the Year award. Most importantly, lessons were learned and the month ended on a high.
"Everything from the beginning of the month on May 4th to taking my first race lap was just a big eye-opener for me. Most of the things I lived that month were all new to me and easily made me feel like a rookie in every single aspect."
His first eye-opening experience came on his first day at the track when driver coaches Rick Mears and Johnny Rutherford were giving the rookies rides around the track in the pace cars, as he recalls.
"I first jumped in the car with Rick Mears and (expletive) we were flying around the track in that car. I was more uncomfortable as a passenger than going 230 miles per hour by myself in the Dallara. I've always found it difficult to be a passenger and at that time I was telling myself (expletive) ‘I am definitely not going to be a passenger anymore, ever, I'm not taking the risk and feeling what I felt!' It made me more anxious and more worried about running at Indy from what I saw with him. Then with Johnny Rutherford, he jumped onto that pit lane wide open with the Camaro, going in between that little pit wall like flat out! And I'm thinking ‘Oh my god, this guy is insane!' I braced myself in the car. Those two freaked me out even before going out on track myself. I said ‘this is going to be a long month!' But then, I also realized how special this track is."
It may have been an eye-opening experience, but Tagliani soaked up all the little things that Mears, Rutherford and Al Unser jr. taught him. "When you don't have control, you realize more what is out there and it's good because you keep respecting the track, you don't just keep creeping up and taking advantage of the fact that the racecar is more and more comfortable to drive than a street car. When you come into the pits, you're always careful because the track can bite you at any time. Their advice was really good. It was the first time I was getting advice like that on any type of track. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the kind of place where it's so easy to get caught as a driver because the visual is so big, it's so inviting. You don't think that you are going that fast because of the size of the place, you kind of lose yourself.
"You lose the perspective of the speed you are going because everything is so long and so big. And, you are out on track so much during the month that you get used to those speeds. It's easy to get sucked in to a certain comfort level, whereas at a typical race weekend you are always on your toes. At a certain point at Indy, going 230 miles per hour feels like you're going 50!
"All these little things that I learned for the first time are so important to keep in the back of your mind at Indy. I think one of the best parts of the month was that I kept learning things everyday, it was really fantastic."
Tagliani did learn many things and he also discovered just how much the Indianapolis Motor Speedway can play with your emotions. After living the highs of driving at the Brickyard, Tag lived what he thought at the time was a real low during the second day of qualifying. He had no clue that he would reach the bottom of the emotional barrel one week later.
"I was nervous heading into the second day of qualifying. I knew we had our work cut out for us but I was confident we had the speed to qualify in the top 22. Unfortunately, I fell victim to the infamous Turn 1 in morning practice. I was devastated. It seemed like the worst thing that could happen, obviously it was nothing compared to what was going to happen. I thought our chances of going back out and at least making an attempt to qualify that day was gone.
"Fortunately the damage was repairable and the guys did an outstanding job fixing the #34 Rexall Edmonton Indy/King Tut car and getting me back on track with less than an hour to go in the session. Unfortunately, I didn't have the speed on my first qualifying lap, I was still searching for my confidence following the morning crash, it came back, but one lap too late."
That small defeat didn't lessen Tag's spirit. He knew the team had a car capable of making it into the field, no problem. It would just have to wait an additional week.
That following week everything went smoothly. During practice, the team was amongst the fastest cars not yet qualified and Tag was confident that qualifying for his first Indy 500 would be a "piece of cake". The team even added a second car partnered by All Sport/Big Red to be driven by former Indy 500 pole sitter Bruno Junqueira.
On the third day of qualifying, Tagliani easily qualified 26th with an average speed of 220.533 mph. The roller coaster was hitting a peak, only to hit rock bottom 24 hours later.
"I was so stoked after that third day of qualifying. I thought we were safely in, as did a lot of people. There were seven cars behind us when Bump Day got underway. Bruno easily made it into the field and things were looking great for Conquest Racing, we were going to have two fast cars in the Indy 500, but then everything happened so quickly. It's still hard to believe."
Half way through Bump Day, Conquest with driver Tagliani were still sitting 26th on the provisional grid. However, track conditions on Bump Day were much better than the previous day and qualifying speeds were faster than what Tagliani had achieved. Throughout the day Conquest remained conservative, sitting on its 26th place, but was ready for a qualifying run, just in case. It looked like drivers outside the top 33 were not going to be able to beat their speed. But then, suddenly, with less than five minutes left in the session, Tagliani found himself on the bubble and the next one in line to qualify, with one driver on track.
"I think we basically made it harder on ourselves by being conservative. But I guess, now, in hindsight it's easier to decide what we should have done. In the heat of the moment, what are you going to do? You're 26th on the grid and you don't want to risk it. We knew we could go faster, but by pulling out your time and making another qualifying attempt you're also risking a crash or a mechanical problem. You never know what could happen."
What happened next was absolute devastation. Ryan Hunter-Reay was on track when the gun went off signaling the end of qualifying for the 2009 Indianapolis 500. Tagliani was on the bubble with his fate now in the hands of Hunter-Reay. It looked like he was in, up until the last straightaway. Hunter-Reay beat out Tagliani's time by 0.044 seconds over 10 miles.
"It was the worst moment of my career. Knowing that we had the fastest car of the day and not being able to make another attempt made it even more heartbreaking. It was hard to accept the fact that we didn't miss out on the race for lack of speed but that we fell victim to circumstances. My vocabulary isn't good enough to explain what I felt. I was beyond devastated, it felt like the end of the world. It's crazy how the Indianapolis Motor Speedway can make you so emotional. I went from the highest of the highs to the lowest of the lows in less than 24 hours. That's something I will always remember."
Stay tuned on Friday for the second and final part of Alex Tagliani's Indy 500 story, when he talks about post-Bump day and his trip outside of the Speedway on Carb Day, in addition to Race Day.
-credot: conquest racing