Tag, He’s It!

Speed demon alex tagliani steers food allergy awareness back on track

By Jason Santerre

It’s a 340-kilometre-per-hour gauntlet of endurance—both mental and physical— run over 800 kilometres of blacktop pitting man against machine against other men in machines built for death-defying feats of speed and manoeuvrability. This is not a sport for everyone. With ice water in his veins and a daredevil’s heart, Alex Tagliani is the perfect pilot whether he’s sliding behind the wheel of a Ferrari Grand-Am GT, Honda IndyCar or his #18 Dodge Challenger.

“Early on, my trainer demonstrated why you need a combo of fitness and focus to race cars,” says Tagliani. “He gave me an 80-pound barbell and told me to do arm curls. After 10 reps, I rested and started a second set. I got to three reps and he gave me a math equation to solve. I stopped the reps and started doing math in my head. He said, ’Hey! Keep going!’ I only did six reps. Distracted, I lost half my strength.”

Focus is a must when speeding like lightning and communicating via radio with your pit crew, checking myriad gauges, pushing the car to its limits, dealing with G-force compressing your chest, not to mention the furnace-like heat in the car while breathing carbon monoxide. “It’s a pretty intense three hours,” he says nonchalantly. “You can never relax or you risk losing control.”

Defying death at every turn with motor oil, burnt rubber and adrenaline in the air, motorsport is North America’s biggest attraction. And from Formula One to NASCAR to IndyCar, Montreal wears its need for speed on its sleeve.

It was during a trip to his grandfather’s hometown in northern Italy that a young “Tag” fell in love with the sport. “I was too small to be a hockey player, and the more I learned about car racing, the more I wanted to become a professional driver.” Today, his talents have helped him win the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series in Edmonton, enjoy six top 10 finishes with one win and 14 podiums in Champ Car and garner the 2009 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award.

You’d be right to think he has nerves of steel. Indubitably. But Tagliani does have one fear. Nuts. “My parents realized it quite early,” he says. “There was something in my mom’s diet that was causing a reaction during breastfeeding. The doctors ran tests and, well, there it was.” Tag says it was tough growing up in an era when food labeling wasn’t as stringent as today.

“My scariest moment was at a restaurant a few years ago,” recalls Tagliani. “I ordered something with almond paste. I asked the waiter to omit the paste. ’No problem,’ he said. Well, maybe he thought I was just being picky, but you know what happens next. The dish came, I ate it, and I had an instant reaction.”

He says his first mistake was leaving his epinephrine injector in his car. The second was running to the car while gasping for air. He had to be intubated in the parking lot. It was a close call, but he’s here to tell the tale and spread his message, a message that begins with Pfizer Canada, the title sponsor of Tagliani’s car and the makers of EpiPen. This year marked the second one of the “Summer of TAG (Treating Allergies with Genuine care)” that helps support his charity of choice, Anaphylaxis Canada.

This past spring, Tagliani visited students in Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal to raise awareness about food allergies, a growing health issue since it affects over 2.5 million Canadians. “As the mother of a son with multiple food allergies, I appreciate how Alex inspires young people,” says Laurie Harada, Executive Director of Anaphylaxis Canada. “He encourages them to follow their dreams and not let food allergies define them.”

Tagliani says he’s been lucky throughout his career to be able to connect with companies that make a difference. These days, more people are more aware today and take food allergies seriously. “Ever since my incident in the restaurant, chefs are using a new pan for every dish, mixing salad in a new bowl so the chance of cross contamination is reduced. More schools and institutions are on board, too.” He says the only downfall of a more informed society is that so many kids can lead healthy lives well into their late teens without incident and so they get complacent, feel invincible. “The tough part is convincing youngsters they aren’t invincible and that they need to use caution. We’re getting there.”

Fall 2014, Vol 6 N°4

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