It’s been a very good week for Alex Tagliani, who grabbed his best finish of the IndyCar season and added a NASCAR race to his schedule.
Finally, in what’s been a trying season for the veteran, he’s getting his due.
“Since the beginning of the year, other than the really rough start with the Lotus program, we kind of got forgotten,” Tagliani said. “We are not even part of the championship, so people have tendency to forget about us.”
Maybe not now, not after Tagliani passed Dario Franchitti headed into the first turn of Sunday’s race at Edmonton. He led 49 laps before his car faded at the end, but Tagliani still finished fifth, his best showing this season.
Turner Motorsports announced Wednesday that they will take the 39-year-old Montreal native home for next month’s Nationwide Series race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. He finished second in the race a year ago in front of a boisterous and supportive crowd.
“I love the place, I love the track and I have a huge fan base there. I’m so excited to be going back,” he said. “In racing, there’s not a lot of drivers other than the NASCAR regulars that have the chance to race in their home country every race weekend. In IndyCar, I get to do it twice. Now when I go to Montreal for the NASCAR race it makes it three for me this year, and it gives me the chance to cover my country from east to west.”
Not too shabby for a driver who had such a rough start to the season with Bryan Herta Autosport.
In its first full season of IndyCar racing, the team started the year with Lotus but knew three races in that they needed a new engine manufacturer. Herta decided not to even take the team to Brazil, the fourth race on the schedule, and instead worked on negotiating his way out of the Lotus deal and put together something strong for the Indianapolis 500.
BHA landed with Honda in a commitment for the full season, and the team finally had the horsepower to be competitive.
“It was difficult on all of us, and difficult on the Lotus guys, too,” Herta said. “We tried to make it work, we wanted to make it work. But the timeline that was acceptable for us and our sponsors was different from the timeline that Lotus needed. It wasn’t a tenable situation. We weren’t going to survive the year if we didn’t do something different, and we wouldn’t be around next year if we didn’t do something different.”
The Honda pairing has given both driver and team the opportunity to show they can be competitive.
Tagliani qualified 11th and finished 12th at Indy in the first race with his new engine. He qualified third the next week at Belle Isle, but an electronic problem at the start of the race prevented Tagliani from getting off the grid on time. He still drove through the field from last, and maybe would have grabbed a top-five finish if not for the track coming apart and the pits being closed when Tagliani needed to stop.
He wound up 10th and believes “people didn’t see we had one of the fastest cars on the track.”
He proved it the next week with a pole-winning run at Texas, where he finished ninth. He was seventh at Milwaukee, spun on the pace lap at Iowa but rebounded to finish 16th and was 10th at Toronto. Then came Edmonton, where Tagliani told Herta after the race he’s driving the best he’s ever had.
“He’s at the top of his game right now,” Herta said. “Out of the car, he’s done everything I thought he would for the program. But in the car, he’s driving at a very high level and really exceeding expectations.”
So what’s changed? Maybe it was feeling like he had something to prove after the terrible start to the season.
“I think a lot of it has to do with some of the adversity we’ve had this year,” Herta said. “If there was a black mark on Alex it was that sometimes he hadn’t shown that he could overcome adversity. But we’ve had all kinds of adversity and Alex has kept his head down and performed. To me, that’s where he has really come complete. That’s what Dario (Franchitti) does, that’s what Will Power does.”
Although BHA won the Indianapolis 500 last year, with the late Dan Wheldon in the team’s second ever IndyCar race, everybody had realistic expectations for this first full season. Now, this current upward trend has Herta believing the team can challenge for a win in one of the remaining four races.
“If you look at the well-established teams like Penske and Ganassi and Andretti and what they are trying to do with personnel, they try to keep some stability because they know chemistry is 90 percent of the success,” Tagliani said. “But you can have the best driver and best engineer, and the combination doesn’t work together.
“That’s why chemistry ends up playing a really big role. We have gelled. It feels like we’ve been working together for years. I would not be surprised if we can continue to do what we are doing at the moment.”