In his own words and inimitable style, Alex Tagliani of Conquest Racing gives his version of this year's high drama on Bump Day at Indy.
I feel like a crazy man at the moment. The unbelievable way we fell out and then got back into Indy in 33rd on the grid has attracted more publicity than if we’d just gotten our 26th slot on the Saturday before.
Last time I spoke with you, it was just after the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and I promised I’d write after each race we did for the rest of this year. But I wanted to do one after qualifying at Indianapolis, too, and the boys at RACER said they’d like that. I might have said, “Sorry, I can’t talk about it,” if we had stayed bumped out of the race. But a miracle happened, and here I am. I think by now you will know the basics of the story, so I thought I’d give you the inside view.
I guess the great thing is, nobody has said to me anything like, “Bruno Junqueira should be in the car, you failed to qualify,” or anything like that. I think everyone appreciates the freak circumstances that bumped me out, and genuinely everyone seems pleased that I got back in. When I first showed up in the plane to go to IndyCar’s New York publicity trip, I was nervous of the perspective of the other drivers, but everyone was unbelievably nice.
I was really grateful that Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and people like that said some supportive things about us. Even Ryan Hunter-Reay, who put us out, was funny. He said something like, “Thank you for not going out earlier, otherwise I wouldn’t be here! I wouldn’t have beaten John Andretti’s time.” And the other drivers… Well, they just wanted to know why on earth we didn’t go out and set a new time and whose decision it was. I just said, “It was all of our decisions,” because I’m not going to pinpoint anyone. Conquest Racing is a team, and they have given me this chance.
HOW IT HAPPENED
Like Brian Barnhart told me afterward, Bump Day is normally between 30th and 33rd. Those three or four cars are just constantly bumping each other out. But me and Tomas Scheckter, 26th and 27th, we’d spent all Sunday working together, running around in each other’s drafts, doing race setups. Then all of a sudden, both of us are running into the garage changing our setups back to qualifying. It wasn’t a case of that we had been worried about not doing better: the track was much faster on Sunday and there was no wind compared to the previous day. We just didn’t think we’d need to. But then Conway took the risk of re-qualifying – he was behind us but still well in the field. He didn’t need to protect his time. But he did it, and then John Andretti found a whole 1mph, and Ryan Hunter-Reay and Milka Duno couldn’t find speed but they all had to try again.
We could have done a 222.5mph four-lap average in qualifying setup, but the team said, “Look, you’re plenty fast enough to be in the field, let’s wait.” And I still think maybe it was the right call to make. But when everyone starts pulling their time out, it’s no longer a Bump Day. In effect, it becomes a new qualifying day, and that’s what we had. Your time is no longer safe, not when the track has made everyone so much quicker.
So when we’re all sitting in line waiting to go out, you have to pull out of line if someone like John Andretti is behind you, because you’re in and he’s not. You have to give him the opportunity. He goes out, he doesn’t do it, but then he’s back in, and behind you, so you have to pull out, let him go again. Then all of a sudden, he does do it. So now you’re just one car from not being in! So Ryan Hunter-Reay goes out with three minutes to go, and you’re left in a position that you couldn’t predict even if you’re a strategist, you know?
Then Brian Barnhart came to me and said, “There is no time to go out: Ryan’s just completed two laps, he has two to go, you just have to wait. You can get out of the car, because whatever happens, you have no more time.” But I wanted to stay on the radio with the team, who told me: “He’s still down on your time. He’s close, but he’s down.” Coming out of Turn 4 on lap four, Ryan was still down, and he didn’t know if it was a gust of wind, but he managed to cross the line 0.04sec up on me. A couple of days ago, he said to me, “Alex, I don’t know what happened, because we really didn’t have the car to do that.”
I was devastated. The hardest day in my career. Way worse than losing wins at Elkhart Lake, Vancouver, Toronto, Portland, Homestead, Montreal.... I thought until last Sunday that those were the worst moments of my career, and once upon a time they were, but now I just think of them as tough to digest, you know. The two hours before I knew of Eric’s decision to put me into car No. 36 beats them all by a mile. By a mile, I swear to God. I wouldn’t wish that feeling on anybody.
The Indy 500 is the biggest race, I’ve never been in it before, we worked so hard and you know money is tight, so we had that feeling of just being appreciative that we were there – as a team, as a group, as a band of brothers and sisters. All the efforts from the crew, Eric [Bachelart, team owner] putting all his efforts and money in, the sponsor putting their faith in this little team and all our associated family and friends – and in one freakin’ second you’re not in. I don’t have the words to describe it. I don’t speak good enough English to tell you what devastation I felt.
Right afterward, Brian Barnhart came to me and said: “I’m crushed. That was the hardest day of my life: I had the fastest car of the day sitting in front of me and I had to look the driver in the eyes and tell him I can’t let him go set a qualifying time because the gun’s gone off.”
It’s funny though, because later, Brian was also the first to sort of suggest that it wasn’t all over. He and [Conquest’s commercial director from Rubicon] Jim Freudenberg came into the garage where I was sitting feeling like the world had ended, and he said, “You did an amazing job all month, you’re a professional, this was your first time, you learned the track, helped the team to set the car up. They qualified at 219 last year and you were flirting with 222.5, this is an amazing improvement,” and so on. And then he said, “I respect the team’s decision about what they’re going to do.”
I’m thinking, “What are they gonna do? What’s going on?” Then Jim says the same thing, but I still don’t know what’s up. After they left, that’s when Eric came and found me, and told me the plan to pull Bruno out and replace him with me.
I tell you, I don’t know if I was more soft-legged and weak when I heard the news from Eric, than when Brian had told me I’d run out of time to qualify. It was just too short a time to change emotions: I think I was so far down that Eric’s news didn’t immediately pick me up. I was just stunned. I felt like, “Hit me left, hit me right, hit me forward, hit me backward – I’m going to pass out here pretty soon!” Thankfully my wife Bronte was in the garage with me, and her kind words and wisdom helped. She’s a smart lady.
Later on, it was nice when people said they were happy for me. Tony Kanaan came up to me and said “Man, you had no business not being on this grid, and if you hadn’t have had that crash the previous Saturday, you would have been 18th, or something like that.” Dario, Raphael Matos, they all said something similar – they couldn’t believe that they had been watching one of the quicker cars about to be sent home. Unreal. Even Paul [Tracy] came up to me and said, “F***, why didn't you do another qualifying run?! You had such a quick car today.”
Yeah, people will see me as just taking the place of another driver for the race, and if I’d been slow and taken the place of a quicker driver, then that would be different. I spoke to Bruno and I said, “I really thank you for understanding,” and he said, “Alex, you were quicker than me today. It looks stupid if you’ve been preparing the car all month, you give me the same settings, I get in the race, and you don’t have the chance to show what you can do. You did a great job, first time at Indy, to get the car up to speed. You deserve this chance.” Bruno was completely understanding and I just appreciate that so much. It made me feel better. Even though he must be very disappointed, he still said words like a true gentleman.
It was strange, because for once I had the benefit of the status of being No. 1 driver in the team. I’m part of Conquest’s program for the future, their sponsorship work, and so on. Eric told me, “You deserve this chance at every level. We screwed up the strategy, we’re really sorry for you, and it’s not fair if you don’t participate at Indy when you have done so much work for us.”
I already had huge emotions coming to this track. I’ve been racing at the top of the U.S. open-wheel tree since 2000, and yet this is the first time I competed at The Brickyard, because I didn’t have a seat in the merged series until last August. I’m not going to regret the time I had in Champ Car: I count myself as lucky, because a lot of good drivers didn’t get in. But being on that side of the fence did mean I didn’t get to race the Indy 500.
And you don’t realize what you’ve missed until you get to Indy. Oh man, thank God I had the chance to do it. Now I want to do it more and more. I’ve just accumulated so much knowledge, about the track, about the conditions and so many other little things. I swear that if I come back next year with Conquest, we could be a real factor all month. That’s what we need to do. I’ll be happy with this team and their hard work, but please – no more Bump Day drama. I don’t think my heart or brain can take that again.
AMBITIONS FOR THIS WEEKEND
For Sunday, our ambitions are simply to make the best of what we have. We’ve slowly but surely got the car pretty competitive. On Sunday (when I should have been laying down a qualifying time!) I did at least discover our car is pretty comfortable to drive, and settled in traffic. I certainly didn’t run with as many cars as I’m going to have to run with at the start of the race, but hey, we’re just going to have to get it as up to speed as possible, and react to what’s happening.
It’s a long race, a lot of things happening, and there will be between eight and ten pitstops, and every pit stop is really important. If you lose three seconds every pit stop, you are going to end up 30sec behind, which is almost a lap, so that’s very, very crucial to get right. And we need to have quick reaction timing to the flow of the race. Depending on which end of the field you’re at, you have the choice of either dictating the strategy or reacting to it, so it’s very possible we could do an alternate strategy and it could play into our hands later in the race, but you might not want an alternate strategy if you have been creeping toward the front with good pit stops.
Talking to my rivals, they say it’s really difficult to pass, because everyone will be running around the same lap times in race trim. But I have one fairly big worry. The big teams have the possibility of changing their downforce in the pit stops; they have an adjuster. We don’t have that, so the car feels really good with a high level of downforce, but if you start like that, you’re committed to that, and when cars start peeling off or crashing out in the race, and the field goes from 33 to 25 to 22 or if there’s a long period of green flag running and everyone gets spread out, you suddenly want a little less downforce so you can go fast on your own. So we’ll have to figure out the best compromise, because we’ll be stuck with it the whole race. We might look really good early on, and then be too pinned to the track and slower if we are out of the draft.
Just to give you an example, when we were in the draft last Sunday, with more downforce, we were lapping at 221mph, and with less downforce we were doing 220. Why? Because without that extra bit of downforce, I can’t get as close to other cars. But when I’m on my own with high downforce, I was doing 217.8mph, when I have lower downforce, I do 218.5. So then you have to make a call as to how often I will be in a draft, how often will I be running solo. Well that then depends on how often there are yellows and the field gets bunched up for restarts. If you have, say, 10 laps of green running on your own at 217.8, and there’s a pack of cars behind running 221s because they’re drafting each other, you’re gonna get caught very quickly. So you can see it’s hard to make the choice.
Then another factor is the tires. Last year the team told me that with the downforce they had on, when everyone pitted for new tires, their cars were being left behind, but as soon as the tires got old, the Conquest cars were catching other people.
Realistically, then, what are our prospects? Well I think Rookie of the Year has to be possible: it’s between myself, Doornbos, Mike Conway and Nelson Philippe. Overall, we would consider a Top-15 finish would be great. But we can’t afford to damage our car, because we want to use this one in Milwaukee next week.
We’re really looking forward to Milwaukee. My engineer Brandon Fry is very excited. Last year the team qualified eighth, and even then they felt they left something on the table. It’s a track I like anyway, and I think we need to continue to show we’re capable of doing good on ovals. We’ve shown well on street courses – though as you’ll have read in my previous articles here on RACER.com, we could show even better. But ovals are half of the IndyCar schedule, so we must be strong there, too.
Anyway, enough of Milwaukee. I’ll tell you all about that next time. For now I have to get my head straight for the 93rd Indianapolis 500, say thank you to all the people who supported me, thank you to Conquest for the decision they made, and go out and do the best for everyone involved. Wish me luck.