Canadian Drivers at #indyTO : Alex Tagliani of the NASCAR Pinty's Series

Alex Tagliani: “I’m badass fast in everything I drive.”

By: Christian Ryan

Ahead of the Pinty’s Grand Prix at Honda Indy Toronto, 2016’s winner Alex Tagliani reflects on his journeyman racing career: “I’ve done pretty much everything I wanted to do in racing,” he says. Despite this, the NASCAR Pinty’s Series driver is showing no signs of slowing down.

Hailing from Montreal, Quebec, Tagliani has driven seemingly every racing series there is to drive. What’s more, the experienced driver makes a significant splash in every series he turns his attention to. Putting his whole heart into every new venture is familiar to Tagliani, as it was his passion for racing that set him on this path at an early age.

“My father was a mechanic, I grew up in a race shop surrounded by cars,” he explains. “So I was also following him at the racetrack and being in a paddock. That’s another element of being passionate about racing, I saw all the drivers that raced for him in his car with the engines that he prepared.”

Soon, Tagliani would begin his racing journey in a go kart prepared by his father, like the drivers he watched in the paddock. Immediately, the transition from Alex Tagliani to the now famous “Tag” began in his reaction to his first real racing car: “It was not a bike, it was not hockey equipment, I could sleep in it. I told my dad, he put it on the ground, I got in the seat and said ‘I’m going to sleep in it tonight’.”

With his kart and equipment adorned with the markings of one of his racing idols, Ayrton Senna, Tagliani’s intense racing style was created in his idol’s image. Aside from the on track influence, the approach to the sport that Senna and Montreal motorsport icon Gilles Villeneuve shaped how Tagliani would approach the sport away from the track.

Fighting his way up through the Atlantic Championship with a Canadian-centric Forsythe team, Tagliani had made a name for himself in North American open-wheel racing. Being touted alongside big name Canadians such as Greg Moore, Patrick Carpentier, and Paul Tracy, Tagliani’s career trajectory seemed a clear path to the top. When the IRL and CART split happened, Tagliani had a choice to make. However, his national pride and passion for promoting motorsport in Canada made the choice for him.

“I chose CART and Champ Car later on because they had races in Canada,” he explains. “I wanted to race in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. But then, Champ Car folded so I was out of a ride.”

For many drivers, this would be seen as a setback. For Tagliani, it was merely a new challenge.

“At the time you either continued or your career is going to blow by you by the time these guys are retiring. I think I made the right decision, considering that [drivers such as] Kanaan, Castroneves, are employed by almost the same guys. If I would have waited to get into one of those seats, I would have not raced for 15 years!”

Tagliani then turned to the IndyCar series in smaller teams, but maintained his big results. Among them, fighting Dario Franchitti for the victory in Toronto and qualifying on the pole for the 2011 Indianapolis 500.

When a partnership opportunity opened with EpiPen, Tagliani had found a sponsor that really clicked with him. Having a severe food allergy himself, his new mission in racing was to use his position to spread awareness of food allergies and EpiPen in Canada. For maximum exposure to Canadians, the NASCAR Pinty’s Series was the obvious next step.

“Because [EpiPen] are a Canadian brand, they needed to be in Canada racing on Canadian soil,” he explains. “The series that made sense to touch people and bring racing in the houses of fans and to fulfil my commitment with the company, NASCAR seemed to be the right series to do it.”

Having success in the NASCAR Xfinity series racing for Team Penske helped turn his sights to racing stock cars full-time. Also, aside from commitments to his sponsor, the national pride that saw Tagliani chose CART over IRL made an all-Canadian NASCAR sanctioned series all the more enticing.

“I’m a big big big supporter and a big advocate of really trying to continue to promote the racing series to a higher level,” he says of the NASCAR Pinty’s Series. He maintains that while the series could be seen as a development series to help drivers graduate to other forms of racing, it should primarily work towards becoming the top series for Canadian drivers to make a living in: “Right now, it has to be looked at as THE NASCAR Series of Canada where it stands on its own.”

A major part of bringing the series to the forefront of Canadian sports is the Pinty’s Grand Prix on the streets of Toronto at the Honda Indy Toronto. In 2016, the inaugural running of the race, Tagliani stood in victory lane having conquered the street course he has regarded so highly throughout his long and illustrious career.

“I think, like every series in the world, everybody, in the season, has a marquee event,” he explains. “NASCAR has the Daytona 500, IndyCar has the Indy 500, and for us, the Pinty’s Grand Prix of Toronto.”

It was also on the streets of Toronto that Tagliani would see his career revitalized. While the 43 year old is showing no signs of slowing in 2017, in 2001 “I was almost going to call it quits.” At the CART 2001 American Memorial, Tagliani’s car collided with an out of control Alex Zanardi. As a result of the accident, Zanardi would lose both of his legs. While fully aware it was a complete accident, it left Tagliani wondering “Should I really be in here? The incident was big enough for me not to really want to be there.

Back in Toronto, Zanardi came. He walked into the paddock with his crutches. I will always remember this moment. I’m in the pit lane in Toronto, and he laughed at me and said ‘you know the good thing is that I’m about a half inch taller than I was before’,” Tagliani laughs. “I swear to God that moment right there, on Canadian soil, was the moment where I lost probably 50 pounds on my shoulders. It made me look forward and appreciate life a lot, appreciate every little thing in racing, and I probably continued because of it.”

Now, the driver is as in love with racing as ever. Partnered with sponsors that compliment his personal life, EpiPen with his food allergies and Lowe’s with his love of carpentry and renovation, Tagliani has found great success in all elements of the NASCAR Pinty’s Series in a time when most drivers would be contemplating retirement. However, with family on his mind, he acknowledge changes are coming.

“I’m in a position that what I chose to and the way I chose to do it, I’m kind of my own boss and my own team owner and everything. It requires a ton of work,” he says. “It comes at the expense of time with the family, and I’m not willing to do that anymore. I have to do whatever is logical to do for my sanity and the love of racing that I have, but it has to come with balance.”

Whatever Alex Tagliani chooses to do next, he will always have the legacy he created for himself as a driver that could get in any car and push it to its limits: “What I’m most proud of is that I’m badass fast in everything I drive.”

For this, he has been recognized for his passion and accomplishments with a 2014 induction into the Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame. However, Tagliani maintains that the accolades have never been his goal.

“Racing, I love it, I love being behind the wheel of a car, I love being involved in it, I have a lot of passion for it” he says. “I’ve never been attracted to the fame of being a race car driver. People recognize me, I’m fine. People don’t recognize me, I’m fine. People appreciate what I did, I enjoy those type of people because they recognize it. People don’t, it’s ok. Because at the end of the day, when I’m behind the wheel of a car I still really enjoy it. I love it, it’s been my passion since I was eight years old, and I had a good career.”