Indy 500 left impression on Tagliani
INDIANAPOLIS - In the first part of this special feature, Alex Tagliani told about his experiences at the Indy 500 up until Bump Day. In this second and final part he shares what happened a couple of hours after being bumped as well as some more of his ‘Indy firsts’, like the Last Row Party and, of course, Race Day.
It was hard for Tagliani to accept the fact that he had been bumped out of the Indy 500, having fallen victim to exceptional circumstances. However, his dream was still meant to come true. About two hours after the end of qualifying, team owner Eric Bachelart informed the Canadian that the team had decided to stick with their primary driver and put him in the #36 All Sport/Big Red car that had been qualified by Bruno Junqueira.
“At that exact moment when Eric told me, I didn’t know how to feel, I was happy and sad and thinking about Bruno. The team’s decision made me feel privileged. I felt supported and I will always be thankful to Bruno for his understanding of the situation.
“Even now, three weeks later, I still can’t believe what happened. It feels a little surreal. Let’s just say it kept adding to the roller coaster ride of emotions, but from that point on it was an uphill ride. My dream was coming true!”
That week, Tagliani didn’t really have time think about what just happened, he was kept busy with a trip to New York, the rookie luncheon, autograph sessions, and media appearances. He also added some new ‘rookie’ experiences to his growing list of Indy 500 firsts.
It started with him venturing out of the track to go pick up his parents, on Carburetion Day.
“My parents were driving in from Canada and I went to meet them at about a tenth of a mile from the track. I figured I would be back in no time at all. I had no clue what was waiting for me out there, this was my first Carb Day! It took me about two hours to get back to my motorhome. I couldn’t believe it. I had never seen anything like this in my life. Despite the craziness of it all and the fact that I was nearly late for the Last Row Party, I was glad that I had the chance to go outside of the track and see what was happening in its vicinity. The tailgating parties, the people, it was mind blowing! It made me realize even more how big the Indy 500 is.”
The eye-opening experiences didn’t end there. After taking part in his first Last Row Party on Friday evening, he participated in the Indy 500 Festival Parade on Saturday.
“First of all the Last Row Party was great. I had never been on the last row before, so that was something else to add to my rookie experience. But it was so nice to see all the support we got from the people there, even if we were dead last. It was cool.
“Then came the parade the next day. I was a little reluctant and honestly didn’t really want to go. I showed up there and there were more people at the parade than at some races we go to. It was unbelievable. It was so cool. I’ve watched parades on TV and to find myself in a big parade like that one was unforgettable. The best thing is that it’s not all about the drivers, it’s a real show. It felt like the drivers were only the support and not the main focus. It’s nice to see the people of Indianapolis embrace the events. They are all very supportive, no matter if they go to the race or not.”
Despite the build-up of activities leading up to the race and what he had already experienced, it wasn’t until Tagliani entered pit lane on race day that he realized he was starting his first Indy 500.
“When I went to New York for the starting grid photo, it had not hit me yet that I was going to take part in my first Indy 500, same thing with the rookie luncheon and the parade. It was the moment I walked through Gasoline Alley with my wife Bronte on race day. She kept on saying ‘look babe, look at all the people, this is unbelievable’. Right then is when I fully understood the significance of the Indy 500. It’s like everything that I had seen and lived at the track that month came together in that moment. It all added up to race day. That’s when I also started getting a little nervous.”
It took a few laps for the Indy rookie to get rid of his nervousness, but he recalls his opening laps vividly.
“You think sometimes there’s a lot of traffic on the highway. Let me tell you there’s a lot of traffic concentrated in one area at the start of the 500. Plus the crowd in the grandstands makes it look a lot tighter and a lot smaller than what you experienced during practice. Then there’s the turbulence of the first laps. It was like out of control. People that have experienced it talk about it and tell you all kind of things. When you’re listening to experiences from others on any other racetrack, you’re like ‘yeah they were right’. Any other place, it doesn’t surprise you. But at the Speedway, it surprises the heck out of you, even after you’ve been warned and listened to all the stories. When you get on that track, it’s just incredible and so hard to describe.
“After a few laps I was back in ‘race mode’ and not focusing on the fact that it was the Indy 500, it became just another race, it was my way of concentrating on the job at hand. We had an extremely good showing as a team. The engineers did a great job with the race set-up and the guys were awesome on the pit stops helping me gain positions to make my way to the front.”
With all he learned from the start of the month to the drop of the checkered flag, the Canadian understood why people say that the Indy 500 is the most difficult race in the world.
“It starts the first moment you are on track because as the month goes by, you learn more about the car but you also have to deal with the changing weather conditions. Come race day, you’re not sure what kind of weather you will have. It’s all those little things that make the Indy 500 special. It’s not only difficult to go out there and prepare for race day, just completing the 200 laps and coming out of the race in one piece and having survived Indy with all the intensity it requires, is an accomplishment in itself.”
And it was a great accomplishment for Tagliani and the Conquest Racing team. It felt like a small victory to the Indianapolis-based crew. In addition to finishing 11th and scoring their best finish at the Indianapolis 500, Tagliani also took home the 2009 Indy 500 Chase Rookie of the Year award.
During the month of May, it was difficult for Tag to live in the moment. Sometimes it took hours, and even days, to totally take in what was happening to him. It was the same thing with the Rookie of the Year award.
“At first you’re happy, excited, you’re pumped because you just won something. But afterwards with a little time to reflect upon what happened to you, you realize exactly what you have accomplished and you then fully appreciate it. You can only be a rookie once and we’re not just talking about being a rookie anywhere, you are the Rookie of the Year at the Indy 500. That’s awfully special! I couldn’t have asked for it to happen with a better team. It’s a dream come true. I didn’t come in with the goal of winning it. I knew that we had some serious competition for it and even if it wasn’t until the start of the race that I started thinking about it, after winning that award I definitely felt like it was ‘mission accomplished’.
“I think winning the Rookie of the Year at Indy is what will link everything together in my mind about Indy 2009 and it will be stuck in my memory forever. It will also connect everyone on the team and remind us of the best memory that we shared together.”
Tagliani is very content with what happened to him at Indy, because he had the chance to live it all from a to z. From taking his first laps at the famed Brickyard to crashing, to getting bumped, then getting to start and going to the Last Row Party and winning the Rookie of the Year award to top it all off.
“I think having experienced so many things gives you a better chance to appreciate what may happen in the future. Maybe next year will be better on every aspect but at least now I can say I know what it feels like to start last, I know what the Last Row Party is all about and I know what it is to be Rookie of the Year, I did that too. From that perspective, I can just look forward and try to do things that I didn’t do at the Indy 500, like trying to win it.”