Indy Tagliani's final revenge

Canadian IndyCar driver Alex Tagliani and his wife Bronte are seen after a drivers meeting...

Canadian IndyCar driver Alex Tagliani and his wife Bronte are seen after a drivers meeting Saturday. The Montreal native has the pole for Sunday's Indy 500. (JEFF HAYNES/Reuters)

DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:40 PM ET

INDIANAPOLIS - On Saturday morning, on the front stretch of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Alex Tagliani stood up to thunderous applause as he was introduced as the pole-sitter for the 100th anniversary edition of the Indianapolis 500.

For the 38-year-old Tagliani, it was the pinnacle of an 11-year career in the top open-wheel loops that North America had to offer.

But he said that, even as the cheers were still ringing in his ears, he thought about how far he had come, from his roots in the Montreal suburb of Lachenaie, where his first dreams of a racing career were born.

“I remember, like it was yesterday, I used to build my own little race tracks in our driveway and race Hot Wheel cars,” he said.

His father eventually put him in go-karts, helping by building the engines that would propel him to championships in both Canadian F125 karting series and Canadian Formula A karting series.

It was shortly after that Player’s Racing, then operating Canada’s most successful driver development program, began paying attention to the young Quebecer.

It put him in the Atlantics series, the triple-A of racing’s minor leagues, where he earned more than half a dozen top finishes including victories at the three biggest races: The Toronto Molson Indy, the Long Beach Grand Prix and at his hometown Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

At the end of his final season in Atlantics, Vancouver’s Greg Moore was killed in a tragic crash at California Speedway while driving for Player’s team in the old CART series.

The team immediately called up Tagliani and told him he would start his first full season in 2000.

It looked like he had arrived and that his future was set.

But after two seasons partnered with fellow Quebecer Patrick Carpentier at Player’s, the management of the team decided it wanted to go back to the French/English mix it had with Moore and Carpentier.

Even though Tagliani still had two years left on his deal, Player’s jettisoned him in favour of Toronto’s Paul Tracy.

The move paid off for Player’s — Tracy won the team’s only championship in 2003 — but it left Tagliani devastated.

“There was a lot of politics in those early years,” he said. “I had two years left on a five year contract, but Player’s just told me that they would pay me but I was going to be replaced by Paul Tracy.”

Rather than risk a nasty legal battle, Player’s opted to keep paying Tagliani, but searched for a team where they could farm him out, the way big soccer clubs in Europe regularly loan players to lesser clubs.

“Eventually, they made a deal with Rocketsports Racing that they would pay my salary, but I would race for (Rocketsports owner) Paul Gentilozzi,” Tagliani said.

The transformation for Tagliani was a monstrous culture shock

“I remember when we got to St. Petersburg for the first race of 2003,” he said. “I had been two years with Player’s and we had the best equipment, the best engineers, the best everything.

“I show up at St. Petersburg and Gentilozzi’s team doesn’t even have spare parts for the one car they have. It was quite a shock.”

It was right then that Tagliani developed a thick skin that has guided he career ever since. He said it toughened him up to the battles off the track that were in some cases far more vicious than those he faced in a 200 m.p.h., race car on the track.

“I made up my mind that I would make the most of the situation,” Tagliani said. “And you know even with next to no resources I believe that I made (Rocketsports) competitive.”

It didn’t take long for Tagliani to post at least a measure of revenge on his old Player’s mates, beating both Tracy and Carpentier to win his first Champ Car World Series race at Road America that season.

“When we won at Road America, I felt that I was able to show Player’s that maybe they made a mistake in letting me go to another team,” he said.

The Player’s deal, however, would continue to haunt Tagliani.

“When my contract with Player’s was over after 2004, they stopped paying Rocketsports and I was out of a job again,” he said.

It was at that time that Tagliani felt for the only time in his career that maybe he would never get to that top step.

“There were moments after that when, for sure, I thought about whether I would get another chance to show I could still drive a race car,” he said.

But a one-off victory in a NASCAR Canadian Tire Series race, of all things, at the Edmonton Indy in 2008, got Tagliani back on track, in every sense of that word.

“By winning that NASCAR race in Edmonton, a lot of IndyCar people all of a sudden started paying attention to me again,” he said.

A new team formed by a couple of Montreal entrepreneurs and labelled FAZZT Racing sought out Tagliani to see if he was willing to join them as part of the ownership group to go IndyCar racing in 2010.

After a successful first season in the track, the team was sold to Sam Schmidt Motorsports, with all the team members intact.

Tagliani, no longer burdened with the weight of ownership, has responded with the best start of his career.

And when he takes the green flag on Sunday, all the struggles will be behind him, as will the 32 best open-wheel race cars drivers in North America, including Paul Tracy.

dean.mcnulty@sunmedia.ca


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