Alex Zanardi: From racing driver to Paralympian back to racing

With his left hand on the wheel, Alessandro Zanardi simultaneously applies pressure to a handbrake and presses a paddle to downshift with his right hand, weaving around the bend before sending the # 24 BMW M8 GTE into the line. law. There is no foot space or brake pedal, as Zanardi has no legs.

Zanardi, 52, two-time CART champion and inventor of the post-race donut celebration, returns to an American circuit at the 24 Hours of Daytona for the first time since his accident in 2001, in a German crash. EuroSpeedway Lausitz cut off both his legs. His BMW Team RLL teammates will tackle the 24-hour endurance race, designed to test the durability and endurance of cars and drivers, in individual three-hour relays from January 26. Zanardi prepared in early January, mastering the change of driver, before his first endurance race without his prosthesis.

“I have to admit the very first lap was a little weird,” Zanardi says. “It was time to go, I had the engine running and I looked at this void. I thought, ‘Haven’t we missed something here? Are we sure what we are doing? ‘ To take a step forward from a physical point of view, I think it is a total success. To drive the car, it’s almost as good as it gets.

Zanardi competed in his first long distance race with his prosthesis in 2015. The Italian speedster says he performed quite well, but his prosthesis made it difficult to physically follow his teammates. BMW engineers approached him afterwards and asked him how they could help him become a better driver.

His solution? Ditch the prosthesis and compete without legs.

Last August, Zanardi finished fifth at the 2018 DTM Misano in his first race without a prosthesis. Fifth place, Zanardi says, looked like a gold medal (he would know it: he has four Paralympic gold medals in hand cycling). January’s 24 Hours of Daytona ticks an item off Zanardi’s to-do list and also marks his return to North America. The place where he became a sensation, and the place where he tried to regain his magic.

Prior to coming to the United States, Zanardi was a successful kart racer and a less successful Formula 1 driver. Zanardi signed with Team Lotus in 1993 and continued his career in Formula 1. But, when they collapsed and withdrew a year later, Zanardi was unemployed. And, he was broke.

Zanardi’s karting career and the success of Formula 3000 (Formula 1 minor leagues) were enough to earn an invitation to visit New Hampshire for the penultimate race of the 1995 Indy Car World Series. He believed his experience in Formula 1 would bring him a job. Zanardi was wrong: he found out he was an unknown relative in the United States. He returned to Italy, still unemployed.

“I had planned a second trip until the last race at Laguna Seca, and I wondered if it was worth it,” said Zanardi. “Because at the time I didn’t have the money to buy a plane ticket, rent a car, a hotel, etc. I guessed the usefulness of this trip.

It was Daniela, Zanardi’s then girlfriend and current wife, who urged him to leave, bought a second ticket and went to Monterey with him. They returned to America in September and they met Chip Ganassi, who to Zanardi’s surprise was in the market to add another rider to his squad. Weeks later, Zanardi signed.

The second trip was worth it. Zanardi won 14 first places and two consecutive CART Driver’s Championships over the next three years. He became an instant star and, a year after Zanardi first met Ganassi in Monterey, he re-energized the CART race at Leguna Seca with “The Pass”. In the final lap, Zanardi cut inside Ryan Herta, got off the track, crossed the Corkscrew in a straight line and won the 1996 PPG IndyCar World Series. The daring maneuver proved that Zanardi could do almost anything. on the track.

Zanardi’s fame peaked and he left CART for a year with Formula 1. He never placed higher than seventh in the 1999 season and, disappointed, Zanardi took a one-year sabbatical. He wasn’t gone for long, however. Zanardi returned to CART in 2001 and attempted a return to the country which has proven its worth in racing.

The 34-year-old’s return received a boost with two Top 10 rankings in July. Six weeks later, Zanardi led with 10 laps to go at the 2001 US Memorial (CART was the only US-based competition to compete on the weekend after 9/11). The story of the comeback was in the works. But Zanardi got out of the pits, slipped on wet grass and in oncoming traffic. Oncoming driver Alex Tagliani narrowly avoided hitting Zanardi directly, but the impact severed Zanardi’s legs. CART’s director of medical affairs compared the trauma of the time to what happens when a soldier steps on an IED.

“Whatever you do tends to cause you to take another step on the road to complete yourself,” Zanardi now says. “Certainly, the accident. It was a pretty big step in this process.

Zanardi narrowly escaped death. But two weeks after being released from hospital, Zanardi was back behind the wheel. Dissatisfied with his first pair of prosthetic legs, he designed and developed his own. Zanardi drove competitively in the European Touring Car Championship in 2003 with his prosthesis again. He took up hand cycling and won four gold medals for Italy at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics. Last September, he set the Ironman world record in his category.

Another challenge, another instrument. And now, Zanardi is back in North America, in Daytona, ready to reclaim the magic he left on the track in 2001.

“This is where I changed my life,” says Zanardi, “More than anything, it’s the fans. They’ve given me this great privilege to make that passion into a profession. It all adds up to the point. that Daytona 24 has always been in my book as one of the things I wanted to do because I heard so much about this race when I was living in the US and never had the chance to do it to participate. “

When you tell Zanardi about his recent handcycling events and Ironman races, it’s clear he has the same cunning speedster mentality on any course. Zanardi brags about opponents who team up and work against him. He talks about measuring the fatigue on the faces of his opponents and knowing how they will behave in the race. He lost his legs, but he didn’t lose his instincts.

“I had better talent, but I wasn’t as good as I am today,” Zanardi says. “Right now what I can deliver is probably not as good as what I could deliver in my mid-twenties. But the result is far better because, from what I have, I always bring out the best possible result.

Zanardi has not yet finished running.

“The real privilege considering my age, I still think my trip is not over, not over. “

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