Special to the Star
Do you remember your first car? For most people it was more than a just a set of wheels. It was Freedom. Romance. Independence. Responsibility.
In short, it was the physical embodiment of who we were and who we wanted to be — a Rorschach test made of steel and rubber. You are your car — even when you’re not quite sure of who you are yet.
This starts a new, occasional, series, My First Car, in which we talk to people you think you might already know until you hear about the first car they bought.
Did they scrimp and save? Was it a practical choice or a romantic one? Or was it bought based on colour alone?
Our first instalment features IndyCar racers Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Canadian Alex Tagliani. They’ve got one of the most glamourous jobs in the world, but before they made it into the cockpit of a $1.5 million, 650 horsepower, V8 high-tech marvel, they’ve had to put up with the mundane and utilitarian — off the track that is — with their first car.
If ever there was a more aptly named driver, it’s got to be Will Power. Dubbed “the comeback kid” for his return to racing after breaking his back in a practice-race collision last year, he’s climbed into first place overall coming into the Toronto Indy.
It’s the same steely determination he demonstrated when he saved enough money to buy his first car, a used ’87 VL Commodore (photo above), at the age of 17 in Toowoomba, Australia.
The Commodore was manufactured only in Australia by a division of General Motors and though a family-type sedan, a souped-up version was popular with Australian teens.
When it came time to buy, Power brought his dad, Formula 2 racer Bob Power with him to pick out his new wheels. He says the sense of freedom was overwhelming. Though he had been racing his whole life — getting his licence, then his Commodore was “awesome.” Power admits the new responsibility took some getting used to.
“I’d been racing on the dirt, racing go-karts, I didn’t need to learn how to drive, I needed to learn how to be sensible.”
“Not long after I bought that car I started to get into a bit of trouble — crashing it.
“I think I lost my licence three or four times. It was never bad stuff, just the accumulation of speeding fines.”
Though the Commodore came with mag wheels, he quickly “made it more sporty” with spoilers, a flare kit and race steering.
He credits his mechanical abilities — Power can strip down a car and rebuild it from the ground up — as essential to a racing driver.
“If you want to become a top-line driver to understand what you’ve got, what equipment need adjustments, you need to have an understanding of how everything works in a car.”
Power’s first car is long gone, a write-off after hitting a tree. He says today he’s the opposite of his teenage self.
“I do not speed anymore, I’m very safe on the road — maybe I should loosen up a bit and have more fun. But now the stakes are so high — you take the risk on the track and you don’t want to take more outside of that.”
Power says when you’re driving 380 km/h, “it’s enough to cure you for life.”
Fun-loving on and off the track, Brazilian Helio Castroneves has a reputation for his exuberance and wild fence-climbing celebratory antics. But make no mistake, when it comes to competitiveness, hard work and an unwavering desire to win, it’s no accident he’s one of IndyCar’s most successful drivers.
And his competitive zeal extends off the track as well. For his legions of mostly female non-racing fans, Castroneves is better known as the winner of Dancing With the Stars — season five.
Though for all his flash and sizzle, Castroneves’s first car was a very practical 1990 Blue VW Saveiro (saveiro is a type of Brazilian fishing boat). Bought by his father in a business deal, Castroneves paid for it the old-fashioned way: sweat equity. Travelling for the family business, he delivered documents as well as pipes and pumps for industry.
“I loved that car, oh my God, I had a great time.” Though it couldn’t fit more than two people up front, “you could always squeeze one more person in.”
He, too, was quick to customize with a new bumper, some stickers and a new steering wheel: “nothing on the engine — more esthetics — more the look.” Unlike Power, Castroneves says he’s not particularly mechanically inclined.
“People sometimes say ‘Come and help me out, my car broke’ and I’m like ‘I’m a race-car driver not a mechanic — what do you want me to do?’”
Like many drivers, Castroneves was driving on a track long before he was old enough to get his driver’s licence. His racing dream was inspired by his father and by Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna. But money was always an issue.
“As a teenager there was a desire to have a sporty car, but I knew that every penny was going to the race car and I prefer having a better race car on the race track than spend the money on a good-looking car.”
Practical and diligent, he credits his parents for keeping him in line and says he would love to keep racing as long as he can. He cites 51-year-old racing legend Mark Martin of NASCAR fame as his hero and says, “As long as I have the fire inside me, then I’m going to be doing what I love to do.”
Passion and dedication as well as a humble background are also qualities shared by Canadian Alex Tagliani.
A fan favourite, he is the highest placed Canadian — 14th in the points standing. A native of Lachenaie, Que. (though he now lives in Las Vegas), Tagliani’s first car was a practical, used red VW Golf. The car was a marriage of convenience.
Banned from driving his parents’ cars (too many crashes), “Tag,” as he’s known, saved up $10,000 — $9,000 for the car and $1,000 for the insurance. He saved on insurance by buying a four-door.
As an 18-year-old engineering student, he says, it was hard to save that much money and pay for his racing. But again, determination paid off: he worked in a grocery store stocking shelves, worked evenings at a screen printing company and occasionally worked as a security guard at a Montreal-area casino.
“Three jobs, very little sleep, maybe that’s why I had all those wrecks.”
Like Castroneves, Tagliani says his first car showed that he was “a poor kid who was trying to make it in racing — all the jobs that I had was to make sure that I was paying for the go-kart ride — that was it.”
Growing up, Tagliani was a fan of legendary Formula 1 driver Gilles Villeneuve. But not just for the racing.
“He was not a prima donna; he was a down-to-earth guy . . . very easy-going and very humble and I like that.”
If Tag has established his bona fides on the raceway, he says, he still needs to work on his everyday driving. “I consider myself a pretty bad driver actually.”
“When you go back to (the highways) to run a tenth of the speed you normally run, it’s pretty tough to keep you alert in the car compared to other people — that’s the only speed they know.”
Tagliani says he hates long-distance driving and would “rather get on a plane than do a five-hour drive.” Luckily, the Toronto Indy only takes around 103 minutes.
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