The Quebec Talent Pipeline
While many have dubbed the dynamic duo of Andrew Ranger and Alex Tagliani the ‘French Connection’, they are just part of a larger story that looks more like the ‘Quebec Pipeline’. A couple of years ago, Tagliani and Ranger were dueling through the streets of Long Beach, and on the long straights of Road America against each other in the former Champ Car World Series. Compare that to 2008, where the pair have been battling it out on tracks that are incredibly tight like Barrie Speedway, and the ultra flat Autodrome Ste. Eustache which are a long ways from places like Surfer’s Paradise. They also traded in their 750 horsepower, methanol burning open-wheelers for the far less sleek 500 horsepower pushrod V-8 NASCAR Canadian Tire Series presented by Sirius Late Models.
Since early in the history of the CASCAR Super Series, the province of Quebec has always played a large role in the only National stock car tour in Canada. While many Quebec drivers joined the mix at the tracks they cut their teeth on, not too many of them traveled outside Quebec to the Super Series events. The landscape changed at the tail-end of 2006, with the open-wheel driver experiment of Dave Jacombs. The Mt. Hope, ON resident had been a fixture on the National tour for a number of years, but was ready for retirement as a driver, and wanted to use the final few events to see how much he liked being a car owner. He climbed out of his blue #88 for the final time, and inserted both Patrick Carpentier and Andrew Ranger at Cayuga and Ste. Eustache respectively.
Both ran in pretty much the same way in their debuts. They looked like fish out of water during the opening segments of the race but during the second half Carpentier ripped through the field at Cayuga for a top-five finish, while Ranger was able to survive the carnage of Ste. Eustache for a sixth-place result.
2007 began as a perfect storm for Ranger. He was without a Champ Car ride right as NASCAR announced their expansion into Canada. With an excellent sponsor in his back pocket (Wal-Mart who was keen on the Canadian market), joining the new NASCAR Canadian Tires series was suddenly a logical choice for the talented youngster from Roxton Pond, PQ.
The rest, as they say, is history. The 21-year old blitzed through the competition, combining the youthful enthusiasm of a new kid on the block and enough confidence to not be intimidated by the likes of Peter Gibbons or Kerry Micks. Ranger captured a win at Mosport in his first visit to the track in a stock car, and came up two feet short in back to back Quebec events, before capping the season off with the inaugural Canadian Tire Series title.
“That was the highlight of the season,” explained Ranger. “Winning the title and getting to race in the All-Star Showdown in California was an incredible experience.”
This season, Ranger has been on the charge again in Quebec; he has been able to close the deal at both the road racing events in his home province including winning in Montreal, and again two weeks later in Trois-Rivieres. He was thrilled about those wins, “Winning in Quebec is special. It’s my home province, and at both races the crowd was going wild. I think that it helps stock car racing in Quebec when a local driver can win, and I know the fans definitely love the sport, and their home province drivers.”
Ranger also received the opportunity this year to race a Nationwide Series car in Montreal and he performed well enough with the team on the road course to earn a return engagement, in of all places, Bristol Speedway. “Bristol was a crazy place. I’ve never been to a Cup race before, so it was new to me. I couldn’t get over the banking, the amount of seats at that place, the amount of campers, and all the partying that the fans were doing. The track is so fast. When you get 43 cars out there, running three-wide it is amazing.”
While Ranger was winning his first championship in the Canadian Tire series, Alex Tagliani was continuing his quest for the title in Champ Car. Tagliani first burst onto the scene in 1996 behind the wheel of a Toyota Atlantic racer. After four years in the Open Wheel development series he stepped up to Champ Car in 2000 with Player’s Forsythe Racing. Tagliani would finish seventh in points two times in his Champ Car career, highlighted by a lone 2004 win at Road America, and made his last start in the series this spring in Long Beach as the sanctioning body dropped the checkered flag for the final time.
While trying to pull an IRL ride together Tagliani, who has the same sponsor as Ranger, decided to give stock car racing a whirl, hooking up with Ranger to pilot a second entry for Jacombs Racing.
Alex explained, “We had some personal sponsorship in place with Ubisoft and Sennheiser, and we were able to combine them with support from Wal-Mart to run the season. They were able to continue to sponsor me, and become involved with the Victory Lap promotion. It’s difficult to get people to spend money on charity, and that is what has made the Victory Lap program so successful, because we have been able to attach commercial incentives to companies that Wal-Mart does business with. It also opened up communications with my sponsors on a business-to-business level with Wal-Mart.”
After finding himself off the pace early in the year, Tagliani and crew chief Alex Nagy were able to get on the same page, and it showed to Tags early in the year, “We were at Barrie, and we had a good strategy. We stuck to that plan, ran our own race, pitted when we need to pit, make some changes to the car, and had a good race [seventh]. Anytime you can get out of a track like Barrie with all the fenders and four wheels on the car, it’s a good day.”
Despite the struggles early in the 2008 season Tagliani turned in a highlight performance in July. Everything went right in Edmonton, and he was able to capture his first series win. “That was incredible – Edmonton is one of the biggest races of the season, and we were able to win it - definitely the highlight of our season.”
On the eve of the Labour Day Canadian Tire series event at Cayuga, Alex’s plans for the remainder of the season changed when he received a call from the Conquest IndyCar team.“I was at a hospital visit in Hamilton when I got the phone call that they needed a driver in Detroit, so off I went,” explained Alex. “I got there late on Friday and then went straight into race mode on Saturday”
As far as stock cars go, Tagliani feels that he has learned a lot from his foray into the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series, “It’s very competitive racing. You’re nose to tail with 30 cars, and rubbing fenders is okay with me. Everyone is going for the same piece of real estate all the time, and sometimes it works out good for you - and sometimes - not so good for you. The cars are also so close that it makes it tough to race, because everyone is going the same speed. You can have a three million dollar budget, but it won’t guarantee you success on the track, because you still have to get all the horsepower through these small tires to the track. That being said, they have made the series affordable for the teams, while still offering lots of exposure.”
With all the stars aligned for Tagliani to make a move back to the Indy Racing League, he admitted that he is an open-wheel driver first, but does see himself returning to the Canadian Tire Series at some point, “I would love to put together a top notch car with the best of everything, and think if I did that, I would be able to lap the field.”
Ranger on the other hand is more than pleased to be taking the stock car route. “When we were in Edmonton, I got to talk to a lot of old friends from my open-wheel days, and I have no regrets about sticking with stock cars. It’s great that the two open-wheel series’ have unified, but I’m not sure everything is that good on the inside. I spoke to teams that weren’t sure if they were going to be able to afford to finish out the season. You need an $8-million dollar budget to run their series, and that’s a lot of money to come up with.”
It looks like the dream team has run their last full-season together in Canadian Tire series action, but both are far from the end of their racing ropes. As the rope frays to end the 2008 season, half the strands are pointed towards NASCAR, and the other half towards the IRL.