Words Alex Tagliani Image Russ LaBounty/LAT
“everything about Penske racing was as I’d
dreamed it would be,” said Tagliani after the
race. “Strong car, great team and top service…
One of the best experiences of my career.”
It’s not often that one-off rides with Penske Racing become available – but now I’m hoping that it won’t be a one-off! Dodge of Canada wanted to put me in a good car for the NAPA
Auto Parts 200 in Montreal, a NASCAR Nationwide Series race
which fell on an off-weekend for the IZOD IndyCar Series.
When they asked if I was available, I don’t think I could have
said, “For sure!” any faster.
So Dodge Motorsport got in contact with Penske Racing.
Roger’s team was keen to have a road course driver: they had
Jacques Villeneuve for the No. 22 normally driven by Brad
Keselowski and their part-time car, the No. 12, was available.
Alex Tagliani – Penske driver. Sounds good, doesn’t it?!
I’d done this race once before, but you might think that
another reference would be the races I’ve done in the Canadian
Tire NASCAR Series, north of the border. Not true: the cars are
very different. It’s not even close because the weight, the
power and the level of grip are so different. It’s like comparing
IndyCars with Formula 1 cars – apart from where the driver sits,
there isn’t much that’s the same.
After we finished sixth for Sam Schmidt Motorsports in the
IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio, I flew to Carolina Motorsports Park
in Kershaw, S.C., and did a shakedown with the Penske Dodge.
I did about 15 laps, just to get used to the pedals, the seat and so
on, but it wasn’t an open test where we could work on the car.
Jacques had done a full day, so I was also able to look and see
what he was doing, and Penske Racing could not have been
more helpful in adapting an open-wheel driver like me. We’ve
seen over the past couple seasons that the Challenger is a very
competitive Nationwide car and I was given the kind of quality
operation you’d expect from a team like Roger Penske’s.
Chad Walter, the crew chief for the No. 12, is an A-class guy,
and he was giving me lots of useful tips. It was like, “You’re a
rookie: this is what will happen, so you can expect this, this
and this. We’re going to do that, that and that to help,” – that
kind of thing. I was just listening to what they had to say, and
then asking them questions. Considering I’d had only 15 laps in
the car, I could not have been better prepared.
When I got to the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on race weekend,
apart from thinking how cool the car looked in the Hot Wheels
colors, I discovered the Penske boys had added a nice personal
touch. I was carrying the No. 12, the number that my all-time
hero Gilles carried when he won the Canadian Formula 1 Grand
Prix in 1978, so the team had found this picture of me in my
Gilles Villeneuve T-shirt, from when I was about 10 years old
“I was given the kind of quality
operation you’d expect from
a team like Roger Penske’s”
(I remember getting my mom to wash that shirt for me every
evening so I could wear it to school each day.) Anyway, the
team taped this picture of me onto the sun-strip on the
windshield in the cockpit. “This is for motivation!” they said.
That was a very kind gesture, although trust me, I didn’t
need extra motivation. That came from my heart. I was
representing Roger Penske’s team for the first time in my life,
and they had given me a very competitive car.
It’s very different from my regular set of wheels, my Sam
Schmidt Motorsports IndyCar, but don’t underestimate it’s
power or speed. A Nationwide car has a 4-speed gearbox, and
if you mash the throttle in either first or second, you light up
the rear tires. At Montreal, you run a really short first gear
for dealing with the hairpin, then a short second gear, too,