Conquest Racing's Alex Tagliani won the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, but the team had to miss last weekend's IndyCar Series race in Milwaukee. Now the little team with the big heart is back on the championship trail, and Tag reports to RACER.com direct from Texas Motor Speedway.
Hello everyone! Good to speak with you all again. This evening we qualified 13th for the Bombardier Learjet 550k and this is very encouraging form for the race tomorrow night – I’ll explain why in a minute – and big progress for the team since last year.
Despite what people have said or written, this isn’t my first time at Texas Motor Speedway. I was here the year the CART cars were too quick for the banking, and lots of drivers felt dizzy or sick. We were doing 235mph. We’re 20mph less than that now and it’s just a different world: It doesn’t sound like a major difference, but it is. And that’s great, because this is a great, great facility. I love it here.
The problem is, in qualifying, it’s so hard for a driver to make the difference. You need to be smart, and have yourself a good car for traffic in the race, but throughout qualifying, you’re running on the low line because that’s the fastest way. There’s no point in climbing up the banking because that is longer and it scrubs off speed. You just use the grip that fresh tires give you and hug the bottom line. I think I was flat all the way round on only my second flying lap yesterday!
Unfortunately in practice, the engine in the No. 34 Rexall Edmonton Indy car let go, so after 25 laps, we were just watching everyone else go round. But today in qualifying, I ended up 13th, just behind an Andretti Green car and a Newman/Haas/Lanigan car, so I think that we should be really proud. My average for the four-lap run was just 0.005sec off Graham Rahal. And I’m three places ahead of Tony Kanaan! Considering we missed Kansas and Milwaukee, we’ve done no oval testing, and
the only other oval race is Indy which is so, so different, I think 13th is a truly incredible effort by Conquest Racing in a 24-car field. Now we just have to behave ourselves in the race, don’t get blocked in when we’re running in traffic, get good restarts, do good in and out laps and have good pitstops. The usual things! And I think we can do a decent job and have a good race. If we get a Top 10 finish, I think we can say that was a success.
So what are the key things to getting that kind of result? Well, the banking is so steep here, that you don’t actually have so much of a difference between qualifying setup and race setup. Running behind another car disturbs the airflow, like at any track, but the angle of the banking is so high that your car is still staying stuck down quite well. It means in the race, the cars can get really close. The thing you have to watch out for at Texas is the bumpiness of the surface. It’s very important to have your spring and damper setup correct.
Although the cars can get really close, it’s actually then really hard to pass because the fastest line is down the bottom. So even if you have a good solid car the whole run, if the person you’re chasing has the bottom line all the way round, as soon as you go up the banking to pass, you are going to lose time unless your car is a lot better than your rival’s car. We did a couple of laps at the bottom, and a couple of laps in the middle, and it was a big difference.
So the plan is to tuck in behind other cars whenever we can’t pass, and save fuel that way, so any pit stops under full-course yellows, we have to put less fuel in and gain positions like that. And then I must make good restarts. Those two things worked for us in Indy. In fact they worked really well, because I got Rookie of the Year!
I am still very happy with that result. The most important thing was that it was a great, great team effort. Throughout the Month of May, we had so much to learn. We’re a good road course and street course team, when you look at our qualifying and our race pace in our first few races together, even if the results weren’t always there. We proved we can stay around the top teams. But when you get to the big ovals, it’s a totally different story. The teams who have been in IndyCar longer are of course going to have setups that are more refined…what am I trying to say here…They have more sophisticated setups, just through experience, not because they are smarter than us. The experience, the length of time they’ve had with the car, all the little refinements for the car that someone like Penske has – it’s not something you can buy. You have to make your own experience!
This year, we have had just one other oval race, and that was the Indy 500. The first thing I should say is that the whole month’s work, all that month of making the car fast, how to make it good to drive, and just working and working on it, it all really paid off on race day. I think we had a really solid car.
We had a good car on Carburetion Day, but we only ran conservative pace: we definitely had more time to come from the car. For the race itself, I’d say the car mechanically speaking was absolutely at its best; I could go flat out the whole run, and guys that sprinted away at the start of a stint were coming back to us like there was no tomorrow because they were hurting their tires. We weren’t. We were super super consistent, and that meant I had a lot of fun in the race, actually because I could really do things with the car – I could follow people, I could make passes and it wasn’t risky. The car was very, very stable. That meant the only thing I had to concentrate on while going flat-out was also saving fuel, so I cranked the fuel mixture down. A lot of guys were running rich mixture just to keep
their positions, forget about overtaking. That’s how good we were.
So on a full course yellow, we would come into the pits, and we’re all stacked up but because we have more fuel in the tank than some cars, because we’d saved so much, it meant that our stop was shorter. If you wait for fuel, that’s fine because it’s part of the strategy; what you don’t want to do is wait for tires. Well this Conquest team was so good, so perfect actually at changing the tires, so we were able to take advantage of our fuel saving. As soon as the tires were fitted, I could drop the clutch and go, and so we passed people in the pits. We also had cool restarts.
The only thing we left on the table is something we can’t do anything about. I don’t know if you remember my last column when I was telling you about a wing-adjuster, which you can only use if you’ve built it yourself. There’s not a standard one. You can’t buy one. This adjuster is so you can make really quick adjustments to the aero during pit stops. The big teams have it, and we don’t.
So in the last 50 miles of Indy, when Dan Wheldon and Danica were able to drop their wings because they were trying to get to the front and were taking off drag, we couldn’t do the same thing. On that last restart, I overtook Danica and Dario who had fallen back because of his bad pit stop. And I stayed in ninth for about a lap and a half, but because they had taken out wing, Danica could come back past me and about eight laps later, Dario got a good run, too. There’s nothing you can do: you can’t block.
So overall we were really happy as a team that our 11th place meant we did everything we could with the car we had. The car was so good, I’d say that the wing-adjuster could have put us in the top 10. Hideki Mutoh and I were fighting for about 40 laps, but after that last pitstop he had the speed on the straights to just take him away from me.
But I now have a mention in Indy 500 history! I’m very proud. You can only be a rookie there once in your career, that’s what I was, and thanks to this team, we maximized it and beat Robert Doornbos and Raphael Matos. It’s a privilege to be Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, and it’s something I will treasure forever. Because of the strange circumstances on Bump Day – everything that happened and the way it happened [see previous columns], I will have those memories forever, too.
Anyway, that wing-adjustment device isn’t used here at Texas, so that’s an issue we won’t have to think about!
Okay, friends, I am going to get some sleep, and I hope you tune in to Versus tomorrow, watch the race, cheer for me, and I’ll get back to you on Sunday!Alex