Q: I guess in those circumstances it helps having a team like Sam Schmidt Motorsports around you – they're still what was the FAZZT team last year, and that's a pretty special blend of experience in there.
AT: Oh, yeah, between us, we all have done a lot of miles in IndyCar and CART, and last year, we did a season together, so we can use our experience. And also, we all know how to be smart and take note of everything we learn and then use that at the next race. For example, we took our knowledge of St. Pete and Long Beach and used it in Brazil.
However, there are still surprises that we have to conquer. Because the tires are different this year, and the track surface in Sao Paulo was different this year and the track layout was quicker because Tony Cotman had opened up a couple of corners, our setup from last year [which helped put Tagliani on the front row of the grid for FAZZT's first race! -Ed.] was not so appropriate. So it took us all the way to the practice prior to qualifying to finally put a great lap together, and we were P8. However, a couple of the cars in front were on reds, so we were realistically about P5. The reason some drivers were on reds? Because the multi-car teams wanted to know how the reds would react to the new track surface. And there was about 1.5sec difference; that's huge!
But I'm not in a multi-car team, so I can't ask a teammate to do that. So what we relied on was what we learned about the reds on two previous street courses, applied it and – bam! We had a fast car, and really, really neutral handling. And then it went wrong: coming out of Turn 6 on my third lap in Q1, I tagged the wall with my rear tire and bent the suspension, and I finished the lap with my car kind of crooked. I came into the pits, and we discovered I'd bent the bolt in the suspension, it took longer than usual to replace, so when they released me to go back out, it was checkered flag.
Man, I'm telling you, I felt so bad for the boys because I know the car was capable of so much more. You don't feel very proud when it's such a stupid mistake, and that if you'd had the chance to do one more lap it would have been the one to get us through to Q2. As it was, we were P3, but then with 20sec to go, we got bumped out. We probably left a whole second on the table there.
On the Sunday, the first 15 laps were just about staying clear of chaos, and everyone started on dry setups because they thought it would get better but then it started pouring like nuts. On Monday, there was the possibility of going full-wet, intermediate or dry setup with just a couple of changes to help you. And, to tell you the truth, I think we were so anxious to run on the dry because of the disappointment of not showing our full capability in qualifying – we had been just 0.2sec from Will Power! – and that influenced our decision. Everyone peeled off into the pits when we had that rain on Monday at the start, and took on wet tires, and we were passing lots of cars and got up to fourth or fifth. But then when the rain came down hard, I was spinning the wheels in fifth gear. When Marco passed me down the back straight, he must have been laughing because the rear was trying to break away in a straight line!
I have to admit, I was very sad when I left Brazil, because the car was a development of St. Pete and Long Beach and I think, by qualifying, we had it fairly close to where it needed to be and I'd hit the wall. Brother, I still am angry at myself. $#&^! I just don't do that kind of thing. It's not my style. So we left there really bummed out.
On the other hand, I think we've narrowed things down a lot. After our three street races, I think we've made the progress that multi-car teams make in three practice sessions and I'm looking forward to going to places like Toronto, Edmonton, etc. There are a lot of things we're running on the car that we didn't run last year, and different philosophies on setup, too. I told Allen and Rob [Edwards, team manager], “Man, we are so close. We're not out to lunch. It's just small things, and I tell you, I would not be surprised if Sam Schmidt Motorsports can threaten Penske on road courses and street courses. For example, last year at Sonoma, I'd never been there before, we skipped the test, but we were in the window right away. We were third or fourth every outing and we qualified fourth. We thought, OK, that's the type of weekend we need! And I believe those type of weekends are coming – weekends where we just make tiny adjustments.
Q: That's great to hear. But for now, it's ovals. I'm looking forward to watching you at Milwaukee, because you should have put Walker Racing on pole there in 2006. And Indy…well, you got in among the Ganassis and Penskes.
AT: I think we were on the money at quite a few ovals last year, but I'm really hoping our Month of May is going to resemble what it was last year, because when you have a good car on an oval, it's such a pleasure to drive. Last year at Indy, we felt in control: we knew what the car was doing, I knew what I was doing with the car. At other ovals, you get a good setup on your opening run and you'll have it for the rest of the weekend. Indy is different; you can have a good car on Monday, and have it all turn to crap by Wednesday.
Because of the size of the complex, the wind affects your car a lot. So you keep an eye on the wind sock, and if it is pointing into your face as you go into Turn 1, your car's handling will be on the nose. But because the car was always in the range, I could be very precise with the tools inside the cockpit to fine-tune the car for track changes and wind direction changes, and so on. In the Top Nine shootout, we probably went a little too far in one direction, like the Ganassi boys – a bit too tail-happy – but we were fairly close to the pace. And that proves what I said earlier: If we're inside the window, this Sam Schmidt Motorsports team has the ability as a team to stay there, because we're strong. If we're outside the window, then being a one-car team makes it a challenge to catch up.
So the great thing about us here in Indy is that we are a multiple-car team. I think it's very interesting to work with Townsend Bell and Dan Wheldon, because I don't usually have that luxury. It's nice to have that exchange of feedback.
Q: Is there a chance of Sam bringing in a teammate for you after Indy? He's got a reputation of picking the best young drivers, and you'd be a good teacher for them, because of your dedication to the detail work.
AT: I don't know, I really don't. I think maybe the ideal teammate would be a guy with experience – quick but experienced and knows what the car should feel like, knows what the red and black tires are going to do. You don't want someone to just give good feedback – most drivers at this level can give you that. You want someone who can make suggestions and predictions based on their experience. But hey, I'm not going to be demanding or anything like that. I think we're doing fairly good on our own and this Sam Schmidt Motorsports group has the potential to be excellent. I keep telling Will, “Watch out, we are coming, you will see!” And I truly believe that.
Alex Tagliani is always happy to talk racing and cars, drivers and tracks, fitness and marketing, and, well, pretty much everything connected with IndyCar racing. So now's your chance to put your questions to him. E-mail him at AskTag@Racer.com. And look out for your questions answered here by Alex in the months ahead.