Do Yourself a Favor on Sunday: Root for Alex Tagliani & Sam Schmidt
(Note: this article also runs at SB Nation Indiana)
After a drama-filled weekend, cars will not run on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway until Friday's Carb Day. Still, the 100th anniversary running of the Indianapolis 500 is rich with story lines, starting right at the top of the field, where a journeyman racer and a paralyzed owner have come together form on the best stories in recent memory at IMS.
The most heart-warming of the back stories at Indianapolis occurs in the pole position, where Alex Tagliani put his Sam Schmidt Motorsports No. 77 car at the top of the field with a stirring qualifying run in his lone attempt at the Fast Nine. Schmidt's story alone can carry the race, as he was rendered a paraplegic in 2000 while testing an IndyCar, barely surviving the accident. The backstory on Schmidt may be the best for a team owner since Jim Trueman rode with Bobby Rahal following his win 25 years ago, in the 1986 Indianapolis 500.
Schmidt dove headlong into ownership, running his team at the IndyCar Series level for two years before deciding to build a team from the ground up, starting in the Firestone Indy Lights. While Schmidt teamed with various teams to field a car at Indianapolis, it was not until this year that he reemerged as a full-time owner, buying the FAZZT team in the offseason. The purchase gave a reprieve to Tagliani, as it appeared he would be without a team and sponsorship for the 2011 season.
With just one win in his 11-year career, Tagliani has been a grinder. Quick at Indianapolis last year, Tagliani was again near the top of the speed charts all week; paired with engineer Allen McDonald, who called Dario Franchitti's winning effort in 2007, the two, along with Schmidt, put together a plan that put the team on the pole in an era in which the small-budget teams face an uphill battle to compete with the Penskes and Ganassis of the world.
Schmidt talked about running on a smaller budget than the teams they beat:
So at the world's greatest venue in the world, to have this today is ‑‑ it just makes it all that much more special. I mean, I was more than willing to pack it in at 4:00 o'clock, take the trophy and go home with that rain delay. I was calling on everybody I knew with Cherokee blood lines to do a rain dance. But the reality is this is much more special to go out there and actually do it and beat them at their own game, so to speak, and with a much smaller operation, much less funding, and I think that's what the Indy Racing League and the IndyCar Series is all about.
With Tagliani crossed the start/finish line to complete his pole run, a massive cheer rang out among the fans in attendance (fans, if nothing else, love an underdog). The cheers were for more than Tagliani, the first Canadian to sit on the pole at Indianapolis.
They were for Schmidt, too, for having overcome so much, continually coming back to Indianapolis and building his team in the community. The competitiveness which Schmidt carries with him, despite circumstances that could have easily left him bitter, is one that fans and competitors recognize and respect. As Schmidt says:
For me when something like this happens you can either choose to stay at home and watch ESPN all day or you can get out and do something with your life. For me, I've done a lot of things in my life. The thing that made getting up every morning worthwhile, beyond my faith and my family pushing me, was the ability to come out here and compete. I make no bones about it; I'd much rather be in the driving seat rather than in the owning seat, but this is definitely the second-best thing, and this is really special because at the end of the day, as Alex has said a couple times, it's much more difficult to put the right group of people together, and it's much more challenging. To get this all to work is really difficult.
Tagliani told reporters:
"This is a reward for Sam as well. He got involved and helped to continue it. He's an amazing team leader and this is a great result for him. I hope there's more to come."
If this were a Disney movie, Tagliani would be guaranteed the win in Sunday's 500, likely overcoming some bit of adversity along the way. But if IMS has proved anything this month, it is that nothing is guaranteed. Part-timers and one-off entries occupy four of the top nine spots in the field. Teams that traditionally run well at Indianapolis seemed thrown by weather (Penske) or just lacked speed (Andretti Autosport).
Last year, Tagliani started the race fifth, but was never a factor up front, eventually finishing 10th. Having been a driver at Indianapolis, along with having a stake of ownership in the last 10 500s, Schmidt wants to finish the job and find Victory Lane:
Yeah, I've definitely had some roller coasters in my life, just ‑‑ where does [the pole] rate? It's for sure near the top. First and foremost, my wife and my kids are the most important thing in my life, so seeing some of their accomplishments and seeing how they've grown up to be spectacular kids is really good. I'm sure it has nothing to do with me. But that's really special.
And leading the race here in '99 myself was really a special moment, and both Arie and I still feel like we should have won that race, but we didn't. So there's always just this burning desire to come back and finish what's unfinished. So this is ‑‑ and then you've got the Indy Lights program. We've won five out of seven races here, which is spectacular, knock on wood, but it still doesn't fill the void of winning the best against the best.