With the open wheel split keeping him away from the Indianapolis 500 for the first eight years of his career, Alex Tagliani arrived for his first try in the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" as a seasoned veteran.
But don't think the 130 starts in a top flight open wheel series already under his belt made the Indianapolis Motor Speedway any less impressive when he raced there for the first time in 2009.
"I walked through Gasoline Alley on the morning of the race into the pitlane and I saw the fans and all I could think was "holy shit." The grandstands look 10 storeys high and you see the fans across the front straight from Turn 1 to Turn 4 and all of a sudden the track looks so narrow," he said.
"When you drive all month long, the grandstands are a quarter full and the visibility is different: You can see over the wall and the grandstand in Turn 1 is empty, so you have a wider vision but, on race day, all of a sudden the fans fill that gap and the track looks like a tunnel."
Prior to his debut in 2009, the Lachenaie, Que., native had never even been to the Speedway. Tagliani's career began in 2000 at the height of the animosity between the two warring open wheel factions, Championship Auto Racing Teams (later Champ Car) and the Indy Racing League, which kept him from racing at the famed 2.5-mile Brickyard. Only after Champ Car folded in 2008 following a 13-year split did he get his maiden run in the 500. It happened in 2009.
Although he had plenty of experience coming into his first 500, Tagliani's rookie appearance was anything but routine. Driving for Conquest Racing, Tagliani was pushed off the grid on Bump Day and only made it into the race when teammate Bruno Junqueira stepped aside for the team's designated No. 1 driver.
He made the most of his teammate 's sacrifice, driving from last on the 33-car grid to an 11th-place finish, earning rookie of the year honours.
"A bad situation turned into a good situation for me, but it shows you that anything can happen at Indy," said Tagliani who now drives for Sam Schmidt Motorsport.
"When I was on the warm-up lap for the first time and I knew I would have the chance to race there, it's hard to explain the feeling. I have goose bumps just talking about it."
In his second visit, Tagliani qualified a strong fifth on the grid, the first top-5 qualifying performance by a Canadian since Scott Goodyear started fourth in 2000. On race day, Tagliani crossed the line 10th, becoming only the fourth Canadian to take a top-10 finish at the Speedway.
Tagliani pointed to the qualifying procedure, where the drivers' time over four flying laps determines the starting grid, as one of the more difficult aspects of the Indy 500. He laughed out loud when asked how tough it is to put up four consecutive fast laps at the Speedway.
"When you are somewhere like [the streets of Exhibition Place for the Indy race in]Toronto, you pull one lap and you think it's a great lap, you get all excited about it. Well, at Indy you have to do that four times and you can't afford one bad one," he said.
"The problem is that the car is so much on the edge that you take all the goodness out of your tires and, at the same time you're relying on the tires because you can't rely on the downforce because you are fully trimmed."
"One little mistake or gust of wind and all of a sudden you are in trouble."
When qualifying at the Speedway, drivers use as little wing as possible to reduce drag and increase top speed on the long straights, but it also robs the car of the downforce that keeps the car stuck to the track in turns.
Although Tagliani cherishes his races in Canada and has great memories of successes, such as a second in Toronto in 2001 and a pole and fourth in Montreal in 2003, the Indianapolis 500 also has a huge importance in his career.
While racing in Canada is a feeling he finds difficult to put into words, he knows Indy is on a completely different plane.
"For sure the name and status of Indianapolis will never be matched by any race and everybody wants to win the Indy 500 because of the prestige and how hard it is to actually make it. You need everything to be right, you need a bit of luck on your side, you need a fast car, you need to make all the right decisions, and you need to be at the right place at the right time," he said.
"When you go through it and the chequered flag drops, you totally understand why this race is so hard to win. It's very intense and it takes a lot of mental energy and it will remain unique because of the difficulties it brings from the first time you get on the track at the beginning of May to the moment the race ends."
Victoria Day Speed at Mosport
Mosport International Raceway's season begins Friday with practice for the six different racing series competing in its traditional Victoria Day SpeedFest Weekend.
The weekend features some of the top touring car series in North America and some of the most successful drivers in sedans, including Cadillac drivers Johnny O'Connell and Andy Pilgrim, and Porsche star Patrick Long.
The speed fest includes the Pirelli World Challenge Series, the SCCA Pro Racing Trans-Am Series, which returns after a six-year hiatus, and the Castrol Canadian Touring Car Championship, along with the three-hour Sundown Grand Prix endurance race that ends after dark on Saturday night.Report Typo/Error
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