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Career-long hustle pays off for Canadian IndyCar driver Alex Tagliani

07/06/2012 02:43 EDT | Updated 09/05/2012 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - Alex Tagliani never thought he'd get this far.

Twelve years ago, when he made his pro debut in open-wheel racing, Tagliani couldn't see a career lasting as long as it has. The fact that he had made it at all was an accomplishment given how difficult it is for drivers to earn a ride and keep it.

But luck had nothing to do with it. Years of hustling for sponsors kept Tagliani in a seat, and as he prepares for his 12th career start at the Honda Indy Toronto, the 38-year-old isn't surprised he's the elder statesman of a thin crop of Canadian drivers.

He recognized early on that being a race car driver has very little to do with what happens on a track.

"The percentage of effort that you need to put for the percentage of time that you need to be behind the wheel is not fair. You spent like 80 per cent of your time working for 20 per cent of your time driving," said Tagliani, who promoted a pair of sponsors early in his press conference Friday.

"In any other sport you rely more on your talent, and if you're good you're going to make it. Here it's so much more than if you're good. We've seen it many times in motorsport. You can be good and not make it."

Tagliani enters Sunday's race as somewhat of the forgotten Canadian.

James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, Ont., already a star in the IZOD IndyCar series for having replaced Danica Patrick at Andretti Autosport, is expected to compete for the checkered flag as the heir to a race that has historically belonged to Toronto's Paul Tracy.

It's the first time since 1992 that Tracy, who failed to secure a ride this year, won't race on the 11-turn, 2.824-kilometre street course at Exhibition Place.

Tagliani is content to compete in a Toronto race that won't feature the Lachenaie, Que., native and Tracy, dubbed "The Thrill from West Hill."

"It's been fun when Paul was here but now there's someone else from Toronto in James that is looking to make a name for himself in IndyCar," said Tagliani. "You just have to kind of move on."

Besides Hinchcliffe, there's only one other Canadian driver has a chance to supplant Tracy and Tagliani in IndyCar. That's David Ostella of Maple, Ont., who is in his second season in the developmental IndyLights series. Tagliani isn't surprised the ranks of Canadian drivers haven't grown over the years. Too much depends on marketability, and too little on race results.

"The opportunities got smaller and smaller and smaller," said Tagliani. "So it's not like we don't have Canadian drivers like in the go-kart series or in other series that could make it, but they have lack of experience, sometimes lack of opportunity.

"The thing is, the funnel, it's pretty tight. To get from there to IndyCar is very difficult."

For his own part, Tagliani is happy to still be an IndyCar regular despite not having won an open-wheel race since 2004.

This season was a struggle early on for Tagliani's No. 98 car. Team Barracuda-BHA had poor results through the first three races before switching from a Lotus engine to Honda. Since then, Tagliani has managed to win one pole and has three top-10 finishes in the last four races. He ran into early trouble Friday, however, after incurring a 10-grid spot penalty for changing the engine in his car and hampering his ability to win Sunday's race.

If the ongoing dance with sponsors keeps his career alive, Tagliani says it's a part of the game he's grown comfortable with.

"I've kind of adapted to it ... especially because I love it so much I think it would be harder for me to give up because of how hard it is and then not having the ride and, you know, have the regrets of not doing it," he said.

"So I just do it and somehow the opportunity keeps coming and right now I feel pretty good because I have a good solid base and I'm in a very good team that I like to be (with) for a couple more years.

"It turned out that it was right not to give up."

That's advice Ostella will take to heart.

The 20-year-old said he barely raced in Canada before he started in IndyLights because sponsors weren't interested in races north of the border. As his racing education continues, Ostella is also having to keep up with the business aspects of driving on the fly.

"There's always talk about the media part of it. Coming up not too much about the sponsorship," he said. "It's kind of hard to talk about that. It's more the deal you make with them. But definitely what you do off the track is as important or more important than you finishing on the track."

Ostella's career began as an eight-year-old watching his uncle race go-karts. He tried the sport, won his third race and never looked back. An Italian-Canadian kid influenced by Formula 1 legend Michael Schumacher, Ostella said right now he is only focusing on finishing races and hopefully stepping on a podium during the young part of his career.

If there is pressure being one of the few Canadian drivers making an IndyCar career, he isn't feeling it. Not yet, anyway.

"The one thing with drivers that you kind of learn throughout the years, well the good drivers anyways, you learn it's just another race," said Ostella, who had the ninth fastest time in practice Friday. "Yeah, you maybe have family here, you got the pressure from the fans, you're the only Canadian and you're doing well, but you learn to just put that all that in the back of your mind. You learn to just forget about that and focus on what you have to do."

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