Alex Tagliani (No. 61) and a Sahlen's DP car. (AIM Autosport photo)

Passion for Ferrari fuels Tagliani’s first start for R.Ferri/AIM at Kansas

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Alex Tagliani’s been through several peaks and valleys in a dozen-plus year IndyCar career, and maintained resilience and composure through it all. He’s been on pole for the Indianapolis 500, and also been unceremoniously dumped more than once.

And yet, the nerves struck the popular Canadian in an entirely new way when he strapped into the No. 61 R.Ferri/AIM Motorsport Racing with Ferrari F458 Italia GT car at, of all places, the Kansas Speedway “roval” for last week’s GRAND-AM Rolex Series race.

“Honestly, I’ve never felt the way I did like I did last weekend,” Tagliani told MotorSportsTalk in a Monday interview. “I was more nervous than at the start of the Indianapolis 500! It was a bit stressful at first.

“There was more to it than just, you drive, get in the car, do your best and see you later. It was, I’m driving a Ferrari red car, wearing a Ferrari red suit, having had passion for the brand since I was a kid and growing up with Gilles Villeneuve in a Ferrari as my idol. When you put the suit on you know what you have to represent, because they have a job and certain standards to respect because they are representing Ferrari.”

Tagliani was a last-minute substitute for Max Papis in Kansas as co-driver to Jeff Segal, defending Rolex GT class co-champion, as Papis had NASCAR obligations in Mid-Ohio. The No. 61 is a new car this year, joining the sister No. 69 AIM/FXDD Ferrari in the AIM Autosport stable, and won its first race with Papis and Segal at Indianapolis in July.

Tagliani couldn’t fill in for Papis a week earlier at Road America with his own NASCAR Canada commitments in Trois-Rivieres, and fellow Canadian Kenny Wilden did so admirably.

Team principal Remo Ferri, a several-decade motorsports veteran, Ferrari dealership owner and Italian who now lives in Canada, described the process of providing Tagliani this opportunity.

“Through our racing department, when we found out he was no longer driving in IndyCar, we reached out and contacted him,” Ferri said. “It was fantastic to see a Canadian of Italian descendents driving the car. I’m Italian, I live in Canada, and it was great to put a great Canadian driver in our car.”

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Alex Tagliani (AIM Autosport photo)

Tagliani’s enthusiasm bled through the phone when I asked him the same question.

“Never in a million years would have I turned the offer down, because it was too good to be true,” he said. “When I started racing in IndyCar, well I thought it was almost impossible at my age. I was dedicated to North American racing, and IndyCar was my series. So the chance of driving a Ferrari car, in a professional series, was long gone in my mind. I was not thinking about it. But then this did happen, and it was the best thing that could have happened.”

Almost immediately, Tagliani gelled with the team, which also includes two of his other late-1990s Atlantic rivals besides Wilden, Andrew Bordin (AIM Autosport team co-owner) and Anthony Lazzaro, who co-drives with Emil Assentato in the No. 69 AIM/FXDD Ferrari.

Tagliani and Segal began working through data, with Tagliani able to feed off Segal’s expertise of the GRAND-AM spec Ferrari F458, yet still able to provide his own insights that he thought could make a difference.

“I didn’t feel like I was subbing; I didn’t feel like it was a one-race event. I want to do more,” Tagliani said. “I got involved with the team right away in looking at setups, trying to see if we could develop the car in a different way.”

Ferri spoke highly of Tagliani’s feedback but acknowledged that it was difficult to learn too much from just one race.

“I can tell you he did a good job, and I praised him at the end of the race,” Ferri said. “I know he is a good driver, but let’s find out a little more.”

Things couldn’t have gotten off to a better start as Tagliani scored the pole position on Friday. But unfortunate issues on a pit stop late in the race truncated what had been a promising debut, where the No. 61 led laps throughout the night.

The biggest takeaway I took from my near 30-minute conversation with “Tag” – you hate to cut so much of the chat out – was his passion exuded for Ferrari. In an era where commercialism and corporate interests rule heavily, the simple concept of a driver falling in love with a car, its history and what it represents speaks volumes compared to a driver merely thanking his or her sponsors and getting on with it.

Tagliani explained the rationale behind that logic: “Anything I’ve raced before has layers: it has a race suit and the sponsor. You’re driving a Ford Cosworth-powered car with Player’s on the chassis. You’re driving a Honda with Barracuda Racing as the sponsor. But when you drive a Ferrari, with a Ferrari suit, you’re driving a Ferrari first.”

Understandably, Tagliani is looking toward the future and he may be examining making a home in sports car racing full-time with Ferrari in 2014. Without reading too much into things, both Tagliani and Ferri seem optimistic that Kansas wasn’t just a one-off.

“I was very happy,” Tagliani said. “I think I fit well with the brand and the team. I’m very thankful and appreciative that I had this opportunity once in my life and that it could open more doors than I could have imagined.”

Ferri likened it to the beginning of a relationship.

“I like the guy very much; we’re just beginning to date each other, like a couple,” he said. “And if we go out again, and again, and again, eventually, we might get married.”

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).