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Spotlight: Tagliani seeks knowledge at familiar Montreal

August 17, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Benefit gained from racing at hometown track negated by not knowing car's limits

Alex Tagliani is no stranger to going fast. After all, he won the pole for the 2011 Indianapolis 500. That comes from knowing the car well enough to drive it right up to its limits.

And even though Tagliani, a native of Montreal, will be driving on his hometown track this weekend, he realizes Nationwide regulars have the advantage because they know the cars better than he does.

"Driving these cars is not different than driving any race car," Tagliani said. "You're out to push any race car to its limits. You have to drive it hard. You can't drive 90 percent.

"We can push them to the limit, but we don't have the proper feel of overdriving a big NASCAR car, and when you do that, how much lap time you're losing."

--ALEX TAGLIANI

"But the quality of driving to get the maximum speed out of it without losing any lap time, that's the art that NASCAR drivers are capable of doing, because they do it day-in and day-out. It's easy for them."

Tagliani made his debut at Montreal in a Formula Ford car more than 15 years ago, and may know every inch of asphalt on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. However, he has limited seat time in a stock car. So whatever extra benefit he gains from having driven there many times is negated by the fact that he just doesn't know exactly where the car's limits might be.

"We can push them to the limit, but we don't have the proper feel of overdriving a big NASCAR car, and when you do that, how much lap time you're losing," Tagliani said. "So the realization of all these things come with many, many laps around the track.

"That's why it's so different to get used to a car like that, to get the last tenth out of it without flat-spotting the tires, without wearing out the brakes. You have to give a lot of respect to those guys. They're good at what they're doing and definitely on top of their game."

Tagliani said the most difficult transition he has to make when switching from a lighter, high-downforce open-wheel car to a Nationwide car is trying to ignore natural tendencies to wrestle the bigger car through the corners.

"For us, you get into the habit of pushing the car really deep into the corner and braking late," he said. "You're basically relying a lot on the downforce. The car is very light and has a lot of grip. It's very easy for any open-wheel driver to overdrive a car like that.

"When you have a open-wheel guy in NASCAR, the biggest thing is overdriving the car. Your mind tells you, 'You should be braking there,' but the car won't take it. Your brain tells you, 'The car should be turning at that speed,' but the tires won't take it. It's always convincing yourself with every corner, you need to push the car to its limits but not the ones you know."

And that's even more of a challenge on the 2.709-mile road circuit located on an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. Tagliani said the track looks deceivingly easy at first glance.

"It's not a really technical track but there are three hard braking zones and some slow corners, a couple of quick chicanes," Tagliani said. "The biggest thing is the track is so long and you're relying a lot on braking and rolling speed in and exiting out of the chicanes and trying to make up time on the straightaways.

"One little mistake basically carries on to the straightaways. Every time you come out of a corner, you have a straightaway that can kill your lap times if you make a little mistake on the exit. So [you need] the proper balance between aggressiveness on entry and braking deep, but at the same time, don't give up exit speed. Because if you do, your time will suffer."

It is a track at which Tagliani has wonderful memories, particularly when he had a chance to see his idol, Ayrton Senna, when he was 12 or 13.

"My dad somehow, with some friends that he had, got passes to get into the garage when Ayrton Senna was racing for McLaren," Tagliani said. "My biggest thing was to try to get an autograph of him.

"I was racing go-karts at the time. My helmet was painted in his colors, even though I'm not Brazilian."

The Montreal race fans are know for their knowledge of the sport -- and their fanaticism, particularly for Quebec drivers. And Tagliani knows when he rolls onto the track for the first practice, he'll have their support.

He'll also be driving No. 12, the numeral which Villeneuve carried when he won the first Canadian Grand Prix in 1978.

"It's a big chance for me to be there," Tagliani said. "I've raced at Toronto and Edmonton [in the IndyCar Series this season], and now Montreal. Not many Canadian drivers get to drive all across the country like that.

"I always have a little appreciation towards their support. When you see them on Friday, coming out and cheering when you come out on the track, it's a little bit more special because there's a lot of history behind that track. The fans are big fanatics of motorsports so there's always a great atmosphere in the stands."