TORONTO - To say that Alex Tagliani wears his Canadian identity on his sleeve would be like saying the CN Tower is a tall building.
On Monday, less than 48 hours after he made history by becoming the first Canadian to qualify on the pole for the Indianapolis 500, Tagliani was back in Canada explaining just how much it meant, not only to him, but to the whole country.
“When you are standing on the yard of bricks (Indy’s start/finish line) with guys who have been on the pole like Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears, you realize you are now part of that group and you are carrying the Canadian flag,” he said.
Tagliani said that what made it even more special was the fact that he will start the race with two other Canadians — James Hinchcliffe and Paul Tracy — on the grid with him.
It will be the first time since Jacques Villeneuve won the Indy 500 in 1995, with Tracy and Scott Goodyear in the race, that a trio of Canucks who each have a real chance at winning, will start the world’s most famous oval race.
“It’s great that Canadians can feel that they are part of this event now,” Tagliani said. “They can appreciate how talented Canadian race car drivers are.
“We are all proud that we have the Canadian flag on our belts, on our race suits and on our cars,” he said.
“All our hopes are that motorsports can be huge again in Canada like it was when Jacques and Scott battled at Indy and Jacques won in Formula One.”
On a purely personal level, Tagliani said that he is still trying to come to terms with the enormity of his accomplishment on Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval.
“I can hardly grasp how big this race is,” Tagliani said. “It’s going to be on television all around the world. Probably 400 million homes.”
He compares what he is feeling now to what Canada’s Olympic athletes must have felt before their events at Vancouver in 2010.
“It’s something that hardly happens once in a lifetime,” Tagliani said.
“It’s like the Olympics. I have won the semifinals and now I am going for the gold medal.”
He also talked about how important this is for his family back in the Montreal suburb of Lachenaie.
He said his parents made many sacrifices to get him to that front row spot at Indy.
“In 2009, it was my first time at the Speedway and my mom and my dad were with me as we walked through Gasoline Alley with thousands of people on each side of us,” he said.
“When we arrived on the front straightaway, I turned and I saw my mom was crying. I said to her: ‘Why are you crying? We still have 30 minutes before the race starts. The national anthem has not even started yet.’
“But at that moment, I understood more than any other time how important the Indy 500 was, not only to me but to the people that I loved.”
Tagliani said it also made him aware of his surroundings and made him appreciate just how important that moment would be in his career.
“I remember thinking during practice, when there was hardly anyone at the track, how big the Speedway complex was,” he said. “The race track seemed to go on forever.
“But on that day, as I got into my race car and drove around in the warmup lap, with the grandstands full of nearly 400,000 people, it seemed like it was closing in on me. It wasn’t so big any more.”
Tagliani said that, on Sunday, the hard part will be again those moments just before the race starts.
“I think my heart is going to be ready to burst,” he said. “But once the start is done, I think I will be back in racing mode. I have climbed one mountain by getting the pole.
“Now I am ready to climb the bigger mountain by winning the race.”
Tick-tick-ticking taunted Tracy
There is not an active IZOD IndyCar driver with more of a flair for the dramatic than Paul Tracy.
After all, he didn’t get the nickname The Thrill From West Hill for being a shrinking violet.
And no place on this planet is that more apparent as when Tracy tackles the Indianapolis 500. There is just something about Tracy and the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval that creates drama.
There was his “win” in 2002 that was snatched away by track owner Tony George when the then Indy Racing League boss claimed Tracy had passed Helio Castroneves under yellow on the final lap of the race.
Last year, Tracy had already posted a time that would have qualified him for the race when his team decided to gamble it all away on a chance at moving up the grid.
It failed and Tracy missed the race.
On Sunday, Tracy was again on the hot seat on Bump Day with rain threatening to put him on the sidelines for the second consecutive year.
On Monday, in Toronto to promote July’s Honda Indy Toronto, Tracy recounted what happened.
“I had one chance to make it into the race and, just as I was about to go, dark clouds were forming above the track,” he said. “I said to my engineer: ‘I think it’s going to frickin’ rain.’ And I didn’t say frickin’”.
He managed to get going and had a good enough first of four qualifying laps that it looked as if he would make the race.
“On the third lap, I’m going down the back straight and there’s water gathering on my visor,” he said. “I could hear them tick-tick-ticking on my helmet, so I think: ‘Oh @#$%! I can’t freakin’ believe this.’”
Tracy said he knew at that point he had enough speed to qualify and that all he had to do was finish the fourth lap.
“By the time I got to Turn 3, it was raining and I was worried the yellow flag would come out, ruining my chances,” he said. “But this time, unlike ’02, there was no yellow flag.”
No yellow, but drama nonetheless.
'Baby' James gets his shot
James Hinchcliffe was taking a ribbing on Monday about being the “baby” in the family of Canadian drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series that will start the Indianapolis 500 this season.
At age 24, he is 18 years younger than Paul Tracy and 14 years younger than Alex Tagliani.
Hinchcliffe, however, quickly turned what might have been a negative into a positive.
“I guess I am the baby of the group,” he said. “I told Paul that he must be pretty old because I was probably still wetting the bed when he made his first Indy 500 start.”
On the serious side, Hinchcliffe is joyous just to get the chance to be at Indy on Sunday, where he qualified his No. 06 Newman Haas machine 13th.
“It is pretty surreal to think that, in a couple of days, I will be starting in the Indianapolis 500,” he said. “It is something that is part of my very first racing memories; watching the Indy 500 on television.
“It is something that I have dreamed about for a long time.”
Hinchcliffe said that he hasn’t started getting the pre-race jitters yet, but he is sure they will come.
“To be honest, I don’t really think it has set in yet that I will be sitting on the grid Sunday in a Sprott Newman Haas Racing Dallara,” he said. “You don’t get a lot of opportunities like this in this sport so when you do get one you really have to run with it and that is what we intend to do.”