The first thing you notice about Alex Tagliani is that regardless of the subject matter, he's going to embrace it with a sort of enthusiasm and passion that make us more sedentary types exhausted by mere proximity. Tag seems to save his deepest passion for when he discusses racing, and in his 13th major open wheel season, he's found quite a bit to be excited about in his partnership with Bryan Herta Autosport.
In a wide-ranging interview this week, Tag sounded off on a whole host of topics, from his experience with BHA, the fun he's having with this program, his history as a driver, the transition from Honda from Lotus, and much, much more.
On being a "headache" for the bigger teams, and competition in the Series:
"It's not a goal to give a headache to the bigger teams; I think right now what's really nice is the new car regulations and rules is allowing for a lot of teams to be competitive. There's always a bit of an advantage if you could have more money, but it's not as big as we've seen before. The big advantage is still when you run multiple cars. Getting the setup right on the head the first time out is sometimes difficult. Multiple drivers, multiple cars, multiple engineers, give you more chances give you more chances to work over the same time and schedule to try many more things and more chances to get it right".
On the transition from Lotus:
"We've been lucky enough with the Lotus thing--we kept at it with a lot of intensity. We never threw in the towel or gave up. With the amount of work we needed to do--especially when you could just say 'we're not as competitive'--the team really tried hard. I mean, I tell you, there were times when there was no light at the end of the tunnel, but we never approached the race weekend with that philosophy. So when we finally changed engines, it made us good right away. We went onto Detroit as our first street course with Honda, and we qualified third. I mean, I was impressed myself, qualifying right there with Scott [Dixon] and Will [Power].
Then, at Toronto, we made it again in the Firestone Fast Six--that was our second in a row--and then in we did it in Edmonton once more. That was three street course Fast Sixes in a row. What that told me was that all the work we did, even with the Lotus engine, paid off. We couldn't really see it in our results with Lotus, but we could see it right away with Honda".
On the team's recent success and performance:
"It's not just Honda--I mean, Honda played a really big part in all this, but it's also having the team working really hard even before we were with Honda. We also had to play catch-up with the teams that were already with Honda.
It's nice. Honestly, I'm enjoying my time, we have good chemistry with the team".
On that team chemistry, and finding the right team fit:
"It plays a pretty big part, I think. If you look at the big teams, they're all trying to be very stable and get that continuity into their program. Rocking the boat and changing the program can just extend the number of years you need to get it right. For us, to hit it right on the head so quickly, it's very unique. I've known [lead engineer] Todd [Malloy] for a long time, and I respect him, and he respects me. He trusts me, and that fact makes me feel really appreciated. Same for [BHA team owner] Bryan [Herta]--he mentioned he knew I was good and had talent, but in this situation I'm exceeding his expectations.
There's no path or secret to all of this. I just think it's a combination of everything. I like Bryan, I like the team, my engineer and I were gelling immediately well together. Honestly, I can close my eyes and hear his voice about what he thinks about the car, and just a look from the car to the timing stand, he knows whether or not the car is in the ballpark. Really, it's amazing, and I hope we are able to continue with this particular trend, because it's not easy.
To be in the Fast Six three times in row while playing catch-up, it's great, especially with the level of competition we have right now. I mean, we're watching the other teams head back to the garage, and it's no joke. Anyone will tell you the competition level in this Series is as high as its ever been. I'm really proud of the team, and just really, really thankful this program came together".
On his sponsors and where he's at in his driving career:
"We have to thank Barracuda and Bowers and Wilkins for helping bring this together. I feel like I'm on the top of my game right now, and we're looking at continuing with each other for a long time.
This is what I wanted for a long time in my career. Being on a time where I'm wanted, and I can really show who I am as a driver. That's what I've wanted, and that's what I have, and I'm not going to let it go".
On looking back on his experiences with former race teams:
"Let me tell you something: as soon as I left Player's [Forsythe Racing], it was just so much politics. I was supposed to have a firm contract, but there were some politics involved. PT [Paul Tracy] showed up, and they talked about needing an English driver and a French driver, and everybody thought I was in a fight with PT, and then they tried some things with a 3-car team, that didn't work and I sort of paid the price through all that.
I'll tell you, since then--that was 2002--this is the most stable and great environment I've had.
Bryan has said they evaluated my capability as a driver back from the days of Rocketsports Racing. If you remember, that was a startup team from ChampCar with very little resources. Halfway into the championship, I was sitting third in the ChampCar standings. Then some things began to fall apart, we had some inconsistency, but through that, Bryan said even as a driver, he was sort of evaluating me.
Honestly, when I started at Rocketsports, I didn't have an engineer--that came after. When do you hear of a team going racing without an engineer?
It was really a lot of things like that. I guess you could say lack of resources, lack of money--startup teams needing a veteran driver. You could sort of say the same thing about Walker Racing. They were very good people, very strong environment, but they were running with Reynard, switched to Lola, and needed a veteran to work through that.
Right now, it just seems like Bryan is putting all the eggs of Bryan Herta Autosport into my hands, and as a driver, you need that. You can't be feeling like you're there just because of money or because you're bringing something but won't be rewarded when the team moves up.
It seemed like it happened so many times. I put all the tears and effort into Rocketsports, and suddenly, when the team is getting ready to go somewhere, in comes Timo Glock, bringing a lot of money. It felt like that was the story of my career sometimes".
On a look back at his racing career:
"I'm not saying I've not made any mistakes; I know I've made a ton of mistakes, just for the passion of racing and the love of having a steering wheel in my hands. I would be willing to do anything--take any ride, go anywhere--and you know, sometimes, if you're smart, maybe sometimes that's not what you do. Maybe instead you chill, wait until the right team tells you you can drive for them, and show you value your experience and talent. So by saying yes to anything, anytime, maybe it made me look desperate, or not as good as I was, and maybe that was the tag that was assigned to me.
Now, I feel like the team is really happy and excited, I think the Honda people are happy with me. For any athlete, in any sport, I feel there's no secret. In an individual sport, you might be able to show your talents all the time, but in racing, as any team sport, it's a lot harder--you need a brilliant team around you to produce results. I think now we have it".
On the team's overall level of development:
"We still think we're far from where we should be, due to the engine switch and lack of time. The Honda switch was expensive for the team, so there's a lot of testing money that went into that side of the picture. People don't realize, but BHA is a non-Leader Circle team, so sometimes the budget managing is difficult that way.
We have our challenges, we know that, but nobody is whining or complaining. Nobody is saying, 'man, we don't have money to do this'. That's why the atmosphere and chemistry is good, maybe because I can remember the rough parts of my career, so I appreciate what I have. I think the crew is thinking the same way.
That's really the only thing I can come up with. I'm the same driver I've always been. The Series is more competitive than ever, and people seem surprised when we're in front of some pretty big names, but hey, we've been there before. Of course, it needs to be done consistently. But mentally, we're feeling really good, and I think we'll just continue to improve".
On looking at the rest of the 2012 schedule (and back to the 500):
"I think we can have a good result everywhere. At Mid-Ohio, we had a 17-lap run at the test there--and it was my first test of the year, by the way--and we had some engine issues, but the car felt good. I don't know how we improved compared to everyone else, but I thought we were right there with everyone. We can be quick at Baltimore, and the same at Sonoma. My first year at Sonoma, I'd never seen that track and qualified fourth. For Fontana, it's an oval--if you look at Indianapolis this year, in the first stint this year, we went all the way to P1 before we got caught with a glitch, pit speed penalty, and other issues that put us last, a lap down.
On Indianapolis for a moment--we were a lap down and had to pass the whole freakin' field. We had to pass everyone, all the way to the Ganassi cars, unlap ourselves, and then with the number of laps remaining, we went up to P12.
So really, looking at all that, I think we can be fast anywhere".
On getting to Victory Circle:
"There's always the question, what will it take to transform speed into winning races? Well, there's always a bit of luck involved, but also experience. Sometimes, when you work as team, there's these little things that happen.
For example, at Edmonton, if you look at teams like Andretti, Penske Ganassi, they all saved an extra set of red tires. We didn't. When we put on our last tires, they were an older set, and seemed to be damaged, and basically we didn't have the pace that we didn't have earlier in the race. So, basically, we had a mistake that really happened on Saturday, but it cost us in the last segment of the race.
But do I feel bad about it? Hell, no! I mean, when you're competitive, you're quick, and have speed, that's the only thing a driver can ask for. That's I'm having so much fun right now. I'm driving a quick car.
Sometimes we have issues. In Detroit, in practice, we were P20. We threw things at it, and qualified third. When you're a big team and can do all the tests and analyze your car, every decision you make is more calculated. Sometimes, our decisions might not be as calculated, or we take a chance--like Edmonton, where we thought we had a chance at the pole, so we threw another set of tires on we now know we should have saved.
We're not far. If you ask me if I choose to make less mistakes but be less quick, I'd say no. When you drive a quick car in this Series, you put yourself in a better position to have good results. Through trial and error, you'll get there. If you're quick once a year, that's not enough to win. If you're quick all the time, I think that it'll happen".
On Championship points:
"I think if we'd been with Honda for the first five races, we could be in the Top 5 right now. With the points we didn't accumulate in the first few races--my God. You hear drivers say if they have one bad race, they can't recover. I'm like, 'Hey, the first four races I had DNFs'.
We need to finish the last four races strong with what we have, and I think next year we'll have a totally different outlook and approach. I think right now, we feel like we're so close, and we maybe just try too hard. If you were in the championship and finished fifth in a race, you'd feel pretty good, right?
But now, it's like we've been through so much, when you have the possibility of winning, you might think 'man, it slipped through our fingers'. But if you're in a championship fight, it's different at times.
I really just don't think people realized how many times we were badass fast. In Edmonton, it was just shown because we were leading and had the coverage".
On summing it all up:
"I don't know, man. You can tell--I'm super-excited! I don't take things for granted, and I'm very appreciative of what I have right now. I'm a happy man and a happy driver. I have everything I need to compete and do well. There's no guarantee in racing, especially in the Series we're in now, because it's freakin' tight. A tenth of a second can be a bunch of positions. But it's working for us right now, and I'm very excited about the way things are going right now. It should be good".