Eight days before, Alex Tagliani was king of the world: "I think I'll be pinching myself until I go to bed," he'd said after winning pole position in the Indy 500, adding: "I wanted this one so bad!"

The performance of the #77 Bowers & Wilkins Sam Schmidt Motorsport car had surprised everyone from the very beginning of Opening Day. It started fast, and got faster. Everyone expected the Ganassi, Penske and Andretti Autosport cars to blow it away to one side at some point in the build up to qualifying, but none of them could.

Nor could they stop Tagliani from taking the top position on Pole Day itself, and finally it dawned on everyone that this was no lucky fluke but a serious, race-winning contender for victory in the centennial 2011 Indy 500.

'This is a reward for Sam as well," said Tagliani of the inspirational, highly regarded and well-loved team owner Sam Schmidt. "He got involved and helped to continue it. He's an amazing team leader"

Unfortunately Race Day would prove bitter sweet for Schmidt: one of his extended stable of cars was indeed in victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but it wasn't Alex Tagliani.

It started well: after losing the lead at the start to Scott Dixon, Tagliani wrestled it back on lap 9 and led for 20 of the first 34 laps. "[The] car was fairly competitive early in the race," said Tagliani. "We had a really good, balanced car early on. It was nice to drive it ... Early on the car was so good I thought we had a shot at it all race long."

But then suddenly Tagliani was falling back down the field, his rhythm broken as he tried to fight the car around the track and return it to something like its former imperious form.

"All of the sudden, it became very loose. I couldn't really get it back on track, you know, with all the tools I had in the car. So we were struggling with a very nervous car."

They tried to address the problems during the next round of pit stops, but to no avail. "In one of our pit stops we thought we fixed it, but we didn't. It's a shame," he said. "It's something we're going to have to look at. I don't know why exactly the car became loose."

The end finally came on lap 148 when Tagliani was dealing with JR Hildebrand running low on the inside; the #77 got too high up and started to skate onto the marbles, at which point the inevitable end destination was the unforgiving Speedway wall.

"I can't thank enough my team. They did a fantastic job all month long," said Tagliani afterwards, ruing yet another missed opportunity from a campaign that had started with such good omens and high expectations.

Things did not go much better for his official Sam Schmidt Motorsports team mate, Townsend Bell, who ended up pinching Ryan Briscoe on the inside line resulting in contact that sent both the Penske and the #99 Herbalife24 SSM into a race-ending impact against the wall at turn 1 on lap 158, shortly after Tagliani's own exit from the race.

"[The] car was competitive here, running up front," said Carpenter afterwards. "I'll have to see the replay, but it seems like somebody hit me in my left rear, I think it was Ryan. I saved it in turn 1 and whammo, it got me again and pinned me in the wall.

"I hate to end the race this way. We were running strong and had a top-five car, so to bring the car home in a dumpster is pretty disappointing."

"We probably should've finished at least second or third when all was said and done," said Sam Schmidt himself. "The #77 and #99 worked really well together and had fast cars. Unfortunately, they both got a little out of sequence ... You can't second guess what happens in the race, and that is what this place is all about."

Despite both Sam Schmidt Motorsports team cars being out, Schmidt himself did have some cause for celebration at the end of the race when Dan Wheldon emerged victorious. Wheldon had been working in a technical alliance with Bryan Herta Autosport for the month of May (as well as with Ho-Pin Tung in the ill-fated joint venture with Dragon Racing), and during qualifying Tagliani had thanked previous Indy 500 winner Wheldon for his technical input into the joint endeavour in gaining pole position for the team.

"I had good input from Townsend and Dan and it's been nice to work as a big group this week," Tagliani said last week. "It's been an amazing team effort. We have a great group of people, and the additions with the other cars."

It had made a big difference to all of the "small" teams taking on the might of the Ganassi, Penske and Andretti juggernauts coming into Indianapolis. Sam Schmidt Motorsports might not be a minnow anymore as they have been in previous one-off Indy 500 appearances - as well as their IndyLights domination, they bought out Taglian's FAZZT team over the winter to use as a basis for a full-time IndyCar operation - but they're still nothing compared with the sport's superteams, so Schmidt cleverly set up a larger cooperative effort with others to get a "big team" feel to a small scale operation, with hugely impressive results throughout May.

"At least we got a little piece of that car rolling up on victory circle," Sam Schmidt said. "It was Brian's turn, and that's cool."

Speaking at the winner's press conference, Bryan Herta was keen to pay tribute to Schmidt's contribution to Wheldon's victory.

"I would be remiss if I didn't also mention the technical partnership we had with Sam Schmidt Motorsports," said Herta. "They welcomed us. Something that could have been viewed as a distraction by them, they saw that this is a benefit and we can really work together. They were very, very open with us in everything. Alex Tagliani, Townsend Bell, Dan - they worked as teammates all month long. I think that absolutely made a difference to our program. We really have a big, big thank you to them, as well."

Schmidt doubtless appreciates the acknowledgement and is pleased for Herta and Wheldon; but he'd surely much rather be the one standing in victory road, alongside either Tagliani or Bell. And on the kind of performance they put in all month, few would suggest that they won't be there one day - maybe as soon as 2012.

"They dug all month," Schmidt said proudly of his drivers. And next year they'll come back and do it all again, and dig even deeper in pursuit of Indy gold.



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