An accomplished veteran in open-wheel racing, Alex Tagliani probably could find a full-time ride in the IndyCar series if he wanted it badly enough.
So what’s he doing driving stock cars?
Having the time of his life, apparently.
“You need to throw some challenges into your life, into your career,” Tagliani said. “If not, it gets boring. For me, when I drive a stock car, it doesn’t come natural. It takes a lot of control. So when I get out of the car, I feel like I want more. Maybe that’s what keeps the spark in you to be in love with what you do.”
Tagliani, a 40-year-old native of Montreal who made his name in Indy-style racing -- he won the pole position for the 2011 Indianapolis 500 -- is driving two road courses for Team Penske in the NASCAR Nationwide series this season.
He dominated much of a rain-soaked race at Road America last weekend, only to run out of gas near the end; he refuelled and made a mad charge to a second-place finish in a green-white-checker overtime. He’ll drive again for Penske at Mid-Ohio in August.
Beyond that, Tagliani is racing in the relative obscurity of the Canadian Tire series, NASCAR’s humble attempt to establish a foothold for stock car racing north of the border. He’s also doing some sports car racing.
He did drive in the Indianapolis 500 in May, finishing 13th, but he has very little desire to pursue a full-time IndyCar ride at this point in his career. Backing away from IndyCar has largely freed him from the money-fueled politics that frustrated him.
“The Indianapolis 500 is a huge event,” Tagliani said. “But running an Indy car for a full season, there’s a price to pay, and I was not willing to continue to pay that price this year.”
When Tagliani says there’s a price to pay, he’s being literal; unlike other sports, where teams draft and sign the best players they can, talent is only one factor in determining who gets hired by a particular team in auto racing.
All teams expect a driver to be a good spokesman they can sell to a corporate sponsor -- but some teams take it one step further, actually expecting the driver to come to the table with sponsorship deals already in hand.
“You’re actually funding, or helping, a team to survive, and you’re helping their business, but they’re not helping you back,” Tagliani said. “You’re helping them with your energy and your money and your work, and they use that, and there’s always the grass is greener somewhere else, right? You’re never able to build something for the long term. To the point where it frustrates you, and I didn’t want to drive frustrated. I just wanted to enjoy driving, you know?
“And that’s where I am now. Every step you make in your career has some consequences, and I’m still glad I did them because I ended up in a Penske car. I can’t ask for more.”
The move to the Canadian Tire series was actually a plus to his main sponsor, the Canadian division of drug manufacturing giant Pfizer. The company wants to promote its EpiPen allergy treatment -- a natural fit for Tagliani, who has a nut allergy -- in Canada.
“They wanted a Canadian presence,” Tagliani said. “So at some point, you can push and push and push, but they’re going to say you either race more in Canada and you give us a Canadian program, or we cut the money out. So I kind of revamped my program, and made sure it was beneficial to me.”
Now Tagliani doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.
“I’ll replicate this 2014 season again for the next five,” Tagliani said. “Because I’m having a lot of fun, I’m able to do IndyCar at the speedway, that I like. I’m able to please my sponsor in Canada and also race the 22 car for Team Penske and run prototypes when I’m free. What else could a driver ask for?”