Well-known Canadian race car driver Alex Tagliani may have not had the race result he wanted, while competing at Riverside International Speedway for the Bumper to Bumper 300 Aug. 20 (he finished sixth), but he did have the opportunity to showcase his messages about food allergy awareness and the importance of EpiPen.
An ambassador for Food Allergy Canada (foodallergycanada.ca) since 2013, Tagliani noted his team was able to convince EpiPen to come on-board the following year, and now their logo shares as prominent a spot on his car and uniform as major sponsor Lowe’s.
“I was able to get them to accept being part of the race program and use that as a platform to raise awareness of food allergies,” Tagliani, speaking to the Casket Aug. 18, prior to the race at Riverside, said.
“Every sponsor or company has their own way of raising awareness or selling products, things like that, but what I like about EpiPen is they’re more concerned about raising awareness and creating a safer environment for people who are like me; suffer from various different food allergies.
“So I convinced them to join the race team and program to promote all of this and, basically, use the race track, the car, team and visibility of NASCAR, to go around the country and create these awareness messages.”
Tagliani has had food allergies his entire life and said he has seen a lot of improvements in awareness and prevention of reactions over the last 10 years.
“It’s a lot easier when you have kids, or someone in your family who suffers from food allergies, when you’re shopping in grocery stores, going to restaurants, places like that,” he said.
“But, also, the allergy rate has climbed as well. So it’s a growing health issue and it’s not something that is slowing down. I’m not a doctor or chemist or researcher, I can’t tell you why; everyone has their own opinion as to why there are way more people who are born with food allergies or develop a food allergy.”
He noted, when he first became an ambassador and spokesman, his main message was that while someone may have food allergies, they shouldn’t let that totally affect their lifestyle. He would use his situation, as a professional athlete constantly traveling and competing, as an example that dealing with allergies, even in unfamiliar settings, was manageable and safe. He said that changed a little when it was discovered his daughter has food allergies.
“In the beginning, I was helping families to live their lives to the fullest with kids with food allergies and I was really motivated,” he said. “I was motivated to tell everybody, ‘look at me, I live my life to the fullest, I’ve travelled all my life – hotels, restaurants, airports – I have been everywhere and it has never stopped me.’ I was happy to do this but now that I have a daughter and she is allergic too, now I fully comprehend how panicky people are. The first time I saw my daughter explode with rash and swelling, all over her skin, I flipped.”
Tagliani said the additional perspective further motivates him to talk about awareness.
“When you’re an adult and you care for yourself, you carry an Epi-Pen and live your life … it’s just you,” he said.
“But when you’re a parent, you have you but you also need to care about someone else. You’re, basically, responsible for the life of that other person and food allergies are weird because, as kids grow up, they want to try different things; their diet changes and they try different foods, so you’re always shaking.
“Now I fully comprehend and have the compassion for all parents.”
He talked about a couple of close calls he had with his allergy to nuts; including on a plane, during a massage session where the masseuse used an oil with almond enrichments and at a restaurant where a cheese cake, he was assured didn’t have any nut ingredients in it, actually did.
“What I learned from that was; first of all, you don’t leave you Epi-Pen in the rental car – always keep it on you,” he said. “Second, you don’t run (he ran to the rental car and that exasperated his reaction) and third, it (the EpiPen) goes through you clothes, it’s meant for that.
“And the other thing is; most of the people around you, no matter if they’re friends or just acquaintances, you need to talk about your allergies because, in case of a situation like this, they need to know how to help you,” he said, noting he had a friend trying to help him in this case but, unfortunately, wasn’t really sure what to do.
“That’s a huge problem with kids at schools; some kids prefer to hide it and that’s the worst thing possible, not to know. They’ll get invited to a birthday party but nobody knows about their allergy so no one can help them.”
Tagliani said with the improvements in awareness over the last decade or so, the one fear is people becoming too complacent and not staying up to date on the best way to deal with a sudden reaction.
“The respect you need to have for a particular allergy is the same respect you need to have for speed on the road,” he said. “After you have a bad crash it scares you but you need to have that kind of fear before you have a crash. Same sort of respect for water before you almost drown, not afterwards.
“People become complacent with their allergy because they never had an experience, a reaction. So while we do a good job with the prevention part and provide everyone with the safest environment possible, at the same time, we need to continue to have people have a very high level of respect for a reaction and what could happen, even if they’ve never felt it.”
And finding the balance between safety/respect and living your life, Tagliani said.
“It’s about a balance,” he said. “Some people are not going to go into a restaurant, go on a vacation or eat at a buffet because they have these types of allergies. You need to find a good balance between trying to live your life properly, not letting your allergy control your life, but, at the same time, be very well educated, informed, always have your Epi-Pen on you, know how to use it, get the people around you informed and make it a subject of conversation around your friends.”