Alex Tagliani has spent most of his life pushing cars to the limit on tracks across North America. From a career in IndyCar to a more recent venture into stock car racing and the BlancPain endurance series, the veteran driver has spent years risking life and limb at high speeds in auto sport, ultimately earning a coveted spot in the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame.
But perhaps the most dangerous of his endeavours is also one of the the most routine and banal: eating. Tagliani, known affectionately in the racing world simply as Tag, is deathly allergic to nuts – and has had plenty of scares while traveling the world as a professional driver.
There was the restaurant in Indianapolis, where he unwittingly consumed almond paste in a dessert – leaving him disoriented and in life-threatening danger as he attempted to locate his EpiPen, an injector that carries a dose of epinephrine designed to temporarily fend off a deadly anaphylactic attack.
And there have been several plane trips ending in Tagliani rushing to seek medical assistance – along with scores of scares in hotels and diners across the continent.
In an effort to prevent others from enduring these potentially fatal scenarios, and using his prolific racing career as proof that allergies shouldn’t prevent anyone from living their life to the fullest, Tagliani partnered with his NASCAR Pinty’s Series sponsor EpiPen for his Summer of Tag allergy awareness event.
Now in its third year, the Summer of Tag includes a series of food drives in Canadian cities as the racing series winds its way across the country – most recently, an installment in Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas square attracted flocks of racing fans and allergy-sufferers, who chatted with Tagliani and snapped photos with his car.
This weekend, Tagliani sat down with Wheels.ca to discuss racing and managing allergies ahead of his win at the Pinty’s Grand Prix of Toronto.
On the Summer of Tag food drives and awareness events
“What we’ve been doing has been making a difference over the past ten years and that makes me very happy. It’s not everyday you can say, ‘I’m a race car driver and my sponsor really fits with me’ but in this instance it’s the perfect fit.”
It’s not everyday you can say, ‘I’m a race car driver and my sponsor really fits with me’ but in this instance it’s the perfect fit.”
“Hopefully it makes a difference and it seems to. The number of people with food allergies in Canada is exponential. Almost ten per cent of the population has a food allergy.”
Almost ten per cent of the population has a food allergy.”
On racing and traveling with life-threatening allergies
Being in an environment you don’t control, where you don’t buy or cook your food, there’s more risk – and I felt the pain in some instances where I got reactions and learned the hard way. I’ve had reactions that almost cost me my life.”
“In one instance, I’m at the Long Beach Grand Prix, I get to my hotel on a Thursday and have a shower and then go to the race track… while we’re doing the track walk a guy comes up to me and tells me my neck is swollen up – and I’ve left my Epi-Pen in my room. When I get back I realize there’s sweet almond in the shampoo, soap and conditioner. Something as simple as that could have cost me my life. I’ve definitely learned the hard way.”
The stress is more for your friends and family – especially for your family. And now I understand, because I have a daughter who has eggs allergies and it can be very stressful. You don’t even know when she’s in danger.
“Me, I’m racing so I’m getting into it. And sometimes you can get clouded by the passion that you have – so nothing will stop you. But then you leave your parents behind with a very, very high stress level from knowing that their child is out there, running around, flying around the world [constantly placing themselves at risk of coming in contact with an allergen.
On transitioning from open-wheel to stock car racing
“It’s quite challenging when you go back onto a race track that you’ve driven in an open-wheel car. For example, a few years back I drove the Penske Nationwide car in Montreal – you have tendencies to do the things you’ve done in an open-wheel car. Of course, that’s a bad approach. When you drive a car you have to learn the limit of the car and then how to extract every tenth of a second, and then basically continue to be stubborn and drive that car the way you’ve driven other cars. And that’s a big challenge. They require a different approach; different techniques on braking and tire management.
It’s like wiping everything you’ve learned from a specific track and focusing on pushing the car to its specific limit – without trying to make it do things that it won’t.”
On the current state of Canadian stock car racing
“Right now it’s so competitive – you have some outstanding talent [in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series]. You look at names like Alex Labbé, Andrew Ranger, Cayden Lapcevich, Gary Klutt, DJ Kennington – just to name a few. The level of competition is outstanding, especially compared to the past where you’d always have the same guys winning races. Now guys who excel on road courses can win ovals. So to win every weekend – that won’t happen.”
The level of competition is outstanding, especially compared to the past where you’d always have the same guys winning races.
On Canada’s next stock car star
I think Cayden (Lapcevich) is quite good; he’s quite talented. He has what it takes to do well. But that’s at the beginning – you need to evolve as a person, as an ambassador. There are so many things that make it difficult to really say [who will make it], because it depends on a lot of things – especially money and sponsorship, of course. So I won’t be the guy to judge on talent and character and say ‘Oh yeah, this guy: he’s going to make it.’
On the future of the Canadian NASCAR Pinty’s Series
I’m just happy with the way things are going with our series. I’m happy about Pinty’s. Without making any criticism, I feel that we have to be on our own (as Canadians). It’s great that we’re under the NASCAR umbrella but we can’t underestimate the Canadian market. We have to try as hard to please our Canadian crowd, and not just create a copy (of American NASCAR series). We saw that with Target – they came in and now they’re gone. We have a lot of history of racing and if our series is sensitive to what Canadian motorsports enthusiasts want we can continue to build it. The only thing I can do is contribute to it. Hopefully in my time it will happen.