Revved up and ready to go

DEAN MCNULTY

, Last Updated: 3:04 AM ET

INDIANAPOLIS -- If Alex Tagliani were able to convert just half of his passion into horsepower he would win tomorrrow's Indianapolis 500 in a walk.

Yesterday, the 36-year-old native of the Montreal suburb of Lachenaie was positively jumping for joy after his final practice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway's 2.5-mile oval.

"The team did fantastic," Tagliani said. "I'm pretty excited to drive the (Conquest Racing) machine for the race. I'm pretty proud of the improvements and how the team did so far. We have learned a lot."

To an outsider in the go-fast world of motorsports, it would have appeared that Tagliani, given his optimistic attitude, had posted the top lap time of the day among the 33 cars that will start in the world's most famous oval race.

In actual fact, the best Tagliani could do yesterday was 219.833 m.p.h. -- good enough for only 19th on the leaderboard.

No matter, in Tagliani's eyes it was a victory -- regardless of how tiny -- to be savoured.

After all he'll start 33rd -- dead last -- in the No. 36 Conquest Racing Edmonton Northlands/Rexall Indy Dallara after having been bumped from the field in the final minutes of qualifying a week ago. It only was after Conquest teammate Bruno Junqueira agreed to give up his grid position that Tagliani even got in the race at all.

So he'll take the positives, wherever they might come.

"This is my second chance at open wheel racing," Tagliani said. "What race-car driver hasn't dreamed of being in the Indianapolis 500? Now I have finally got my chance.

"It doesn't matter how I got here, just that I'm here."

After the demise of the Champ Car World Series, Tagliani, like fellow Canadian Paul Tracy, found himself on the outside looking in after his team -- Rocketsports Racing -- decided not to join the Indy Racing League.

It was a jolt for Tagliani who had become known for, and celebrated as, one of the best technical drivers in all of open wheel racing.

Not only could he muscle a 850 horsepower race car around all kinds of tracks at lightning speed, but back in the garage he could relate on equal terms with the mechanics and engineers who put those cars together.

"When I first started racing go-karts my dad built the engines and set up the karts," Tagliani said. "He wanted me to learn so I did and now I can pretty well build a kart from scratch."

Tagliani's willingness go roll up his sleeves to help make his race cars faster also comes from his education at the university of necessity where he graduated with honours.

"I remember my first Champ Car race with (Paul Gentilozzi-owned) Rocketsports," he said. "I arrived at St. Petersburg (Fla.) only to find one race car with no back up, no spare parts and a make shift crew. We didn't even have a truck to transport the car."

All Tagliani did was spend two days making the car faster and then qualified the car third. It was a feat that racing people talk about to this day.

So forgive him if he gets a little excited when he is given the opportunity to compete on the world stage.

For all his enthusiasm, however, Tagliani also is a realist. He knows that at age 36 there won't be too many more chances to make his mark on the sport he so clearly loves.

"I look at Paul (Tracy) and marvel that he has been able to come here at his age (40) and do what he has done (qualify 13th)," Tagliani said. "I'm a few years younger than him so I think I can go out there (tomorrow) and make people believe in me and show them what I can do."

The boundless energy he creates just talking about racing makes it hard to suggest that Tagliani won't go out and do exactly that when the race starts in front of an expected crowd of about 250,000 in the stands and a worldwide audience watching on television.

DEAN.MCNULTY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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