Alex Za­nardi takes cen­tre stage as he wheels around Day­tona


The Malta Independent on Sunday - - SPORT -

Alex Za­nardi popped out of his wheel­chair and onto the con­crete garage floor to await his turn to climb into the race car. He pushed his way to­ward the car, then lifted him­self into the cock­pit to prac­tice a driver change as seam­less as any done by his com­peti­tors.

The swap took nearly 30 sec­onds when Za­nardi first be­gan work­ing with teammates. Af­ter sev­eral prac­tice rounds Fri­day at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way, his BMW Team RLL was near­ing 15-sec­ond swaps.

It was more ev­i­dence of the re­mark­able re­silience Za­nardi has shown since his legs were sev­ered in a 2001 ac­ci­dent.

The beloved Ital­ian is sched­uled to race in the Rolex 24 at Day­tona later this month, his first event in North Amer­ica since be­fore the fate­ful Sept. 15, 2001, crash at EuroSpeed­way Lausitz in Klet­twitz, Ger­many. His long­time part­ner­ship with BMW led to the de­vel­op­ment of a steer­ing wheel with levers and pad­dles for Za­nardi to shift gears, brake and ac­cel­er­ate with­out the use of his pros­thetic legs.

“For one lap, with my pros­thet­ics, I am faster when I can push the ac­cel­er­a­tor,” Za­nardi told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “But that’s be­cause I am do­ing so much with my hands and there are so many things to fo­cus on. Once I am com­fort­able and have done a few laps, I am at the same pace as ev­ery­one else.

“The phys­i­cal de­mand is also not as high with­out the pros­thetic legs, so I am like an an­i­mal and can drive for­ever.”

No one would ex­pect any­thing less from Za­nardi, who is now 52.

Few thought he was go­ing to sur­vive his hor­rific crash in which he lay bleed­ing and ex­posed on the race track in Ger­many late in an event al­ready heavy with emo­tion. The CART Se­ries had ar­rived in Ger­many prior to the Sept. 11 at­tacks, and with teams un­able to re­turn to the United States, the league was the only US-based sport to com­pete that week­end. While many have long cursed that en­tire event and how it ended with Za­nardi’s near-fa­tal crash, he never once com­plained.

“From that first day, not one time did Alex won­der why this aw­ful thing hap­pened to him. In­stead, he ac­cepted what hap­pened, con­sid­ered him­self lucky to be alive and moved on de­ter­mined to live ev­ery day to its fullest,” said Chip Ganassi, who won 15 races and two CART cham­pi­onships with Za­nardi.

Za­nardi learned to walk with pros­thet­ics he de­signed be­cause he wasn’t sat­is­fied with the mo­bil­ity of any­thing on the mar­ket. He took up hand cy­cling and won four gold medals in two Par­a­lympics. He won his di­vi­sion in the New York City Marathon, and in the Iron­man World Cham­pi­onship, where he used a hand­bike for the cy­cling por­tion and a wheel­chair for the run­ning por­tion, Za­nardi fin­ished 19th out of 247 in the 45-49 age group.

He also made a re­turn to rac­ing in Euro­pean tour­ing cars, sat­is­fy­ing his itch to get back in a car. Then BMW ap­proached him about us­ing new tech­nol­ogy to build a spe­cial sys­tem to race a sports car and as­sumed Za­nardi would want to try it at Le Mans, the most pres­ti­gious en­durance race in the world. Za­nardi chose Day­tona in­stead. “Day­tona has some of the great­est fans in the world and many re­mem­ber me from some of the things I’ve done in this won­der­ful coun­try,” Za­nardi said. “I feel gifted for hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity to com­pete in Day­tona.”

Za­nardi’s pos­i­tive out­look and su­per­sized per­son­al­ity have en­veloped the en­tire pad­dock and thrilled driv­ers ea­ger to share the track with the leg­end cred­ited with cre­at­ing both cel­e­bra­tory vic­tory burnouts and, along with then-team­mate Jimmy Vasser, lay­ing the foun­da­tion for Ganassi’s cham­pi­onship or­gan­i­sa­tion.

“I can’t go any fur­ther than a few feet then bump into an­other friend who, of course, I would love to go to din­ner with,” Za­nardi said of his time so far at Day­tona. “It’s so great to be sur­rounded by so many friends. And many of the driv­ers, they say, ‘Wow, Alex, it is so cool to be in the field with you.’ But it’s just be­cause they think I will be be­hind them. When you get ahead of them, they aren’t so happy. So I hope I can cool some of them down.”

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