THE CANADIAN PRESS
Canadian race car driver Alex Tagliani is back from Brazil and hot under the collar after getting knocked out of the Sao Paulo Indy 300 by Dan Wheldon in a crash Tagliani says smacks of a deliberate takeout.
"I watched the replay. I’m not stupid. You bump me off the road. You hit me. You crash my car and then you lie to my face?" said Tagliani in a phone interview Tuesday from Indianapolis. "He (Wheldon) created a massive incident early in the race.
"I appreciate the fact he went to see our (crew) guys (to apologize), but the reasoning behind his excuse is total crap."
Tagliani, driving for the first-year FAZZT Race Team, was 29 laps into the race Sunday when his black and white No. 77 Bowers and Wilkins Dallara Honda was hit from behind by Wheldon, who was inside of Tagliani, as they roared down a straightaway and into a right-hand turn.
The move caused the 37-year-old from Lachenaie, Que., to spear the wall, bounce out, and pile-drive the rear of Tony Kanaan’s car, sending the Brazilian fan favourite spinning into the run-off area and out of contention.
Wheldon, the 31-year old British driver for Panther Racing, kept on going to finish fifth. Kanaan ended up 10th and Tagliani was 19th in the 24-car field.
Wheldon was quick to apologize post-race.
"Tag had a bit of a bobble coming onto the straight and I got a really good run. He defended a little bit, and I was just going to look to the inside, but decided to pull in just a touch," said Wheldon.
"When I braked, I hit a really big bump and it just lifted my front wheels off the ground. When that happens you can’t stop."
Tagliani said he accepted that explanation — for a while, especially after Wheldon sought him out before he flew home to apologize personally to him and his crew.
"He comes to me at the airport, apologizes and says ‘Oh I’m sorry. I hit a bump and locked up and slid into you.’
"And I said ‘OK. No problem. You’re OK. Thank you.’ And I shake his hand. Everything’s good. And then I come to Indy and I watch the replay and it’s (B.S.). I’m not happy."
Normally, Tagliani said, a driver on the inside trying to pass on a right-hand turn will try to get to the corner first or do something to force his opponent into a mistake.
But to aim the front of your car into another driver’s rear tire, knock it and sweep the car aside and keep on going is one of the cheapest and cheesiest moves in racing, he said.
"Any monkey can do that," said Tagliani. "I appreciate a guy trying his guts out to pass me and we tangle and create an incident. At least the guy tried.
"(But) an experienced guy like him doing this? I can’t prove it. I will never be able to prove it but it keeps me with doubts about the sincerity of his actions.
"You want my respect? Just do the hard thing. Stick your nose where you think you can pass and at least give me the opportunity to avoid you."
Mike Kitchel, spokesman for Panther Racing, said in an email they will not respond directly to Tagliani’s comments.
"Dan apologized, and took responsibility, for the accident both on the radio immediately following the incident and then went to personally apologize to every FAZZT racing mechanic and engineer immediately following the race," said Kitchel.
"I know Dan has a tremendous amount of respect for Tags as a driver and for his role in helping to build an extremely competitive IZOD IndyCar Series race team."
Tagliani said he doesn’t plan any retaliatory moves when the next race takes place in Florida on March 28, at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
The circuit comes to Canada on July 18 for Honda Indy Toronto and July 25 for the Edmonton Indy.
The crash derailed a promising season start for Tagliani and the FAZZT team.
He was second-fastest in qualifying and ran second to polesitter Dario Franchitti for the first 18 laps of the race, conserving fuel with an eye to leaping into the lead should rain red flag the race, forcing all drivers to pit but not take on fuel.
He had slipped down to fifth by the time Wheldon ended his day on lap 29.
This isn’t the first time Wheldon has tangled with other drivers. The man from Emberton, England — who calls himself the "Baby-faced Assassin" in last season’s IndyCar media guide — had a dustup almost three years ago with the most famous face on the circuit, Danica Patrick.
Patrick was in the middle of three cars racing three-wide going into the first turn at the Milwaukee Mile oval in 2007 when Wheldon, on the outside, dove down, cut Patrick off, and almost forced her into the inside wall. Her suspension was shot and her race was done.
"I’d like to break Wheldon," said Patrick over her helmet headset. "Just rip his front wing off."
Wheldon later said Patrick had room to move.
"It’s just one of those things," he said.
Patrick later confronted Wheldon in the pits, getting in his face and shoving him as he walked away.
"She’s just feisty," said Wheldon. "She’s messing with the wrong person if she wants to get feisty because I’m a lot tougher than she is on track."