Zanardi in thoughts around motorsports

Posted: Thursday, September 20, 2001

As Alex Zanardi lies in a hospital bed in Berlin following a nearly fatal, career-ending injury, many in the sport are thinking about the man who transcended his role as a race car driver.

The 34-year-old driver, born Alessandro Zanardi in Bologna, Italy, lost both legs in a crash Saturday in a CART race in Germany.

While his family, friends and acquaintances wait restlessly and pray for his recovery, the memory of this intelligent, funny and perceptive man is what keeps many going. Even those in other racing circuits have been deeply touched by him and believe he will overcome the tragedy.

''He's a great person, and we're all praying for him,'' said NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon.

Zanardi came onto the CART scene in 1996 after failing to find a regular ride in Formula One. He was Chip Ganassi's discovery, a grand find by the car owner went on to unprecedented four straight CART championships -- two of them by the man known universally in the Champ car series simply as Alex.

He won three races and took Rookie of the Year honors, and got his first title the next season. Zanardi was named to the 12-man roster for the 1998 International Race of Champions series -- an all-star circuit encompassing open-wheel, stock car and sports car racing.

The first time he walked to the pit lane to test an IROC car, another of the all-stars -- Gordon -- was waiting.

As Zanardi strolled toward Gordon, he turned to a companion and said, ''I must introduce myself.''

Instead, Gordon rushed up, smiling, his right hand outstretched and said, ''Alex, you are my hero.''

The stunned Zanardi stopped in his tracks and stared while Gordon added, ''I can't believe some of the things you've done in a race car. 'The Pass' was incredible.''

Anybody who saw it, in person or on TV, knew exactly what Gordon was talking about.

On the final lap of the 1996 race in Monterey, Calif., Zanardi made one of the most spectacular moves in the history of racing. He shot past a stunned Bryan Herta by driving off the track and back on at The Corkscrew, a downhill, blind switchback and one of the most famous turns in American racing.

Asked later why he even tried such a reckless move, Zanardi shrugged and grinned.

''I practiced it and knew I could do it,'' he said.

Besides his racing prowess, a Zanardi trademark has been his intelligence and a rare sense of humor that has helped him become a favorite among his peers.

Jimmy Vasser, his teammate for three years on the Ganassi team and one of his closest friends, credited Zanardi with making him a better driver.

''You know, he never gives up on himself,'' Vasser said. ''No matter what goes wrong, what happens on the race track or off of it, Alex goes after it.

''He's a totally positive influence and he just kept telling me, 'Jimmy, you're better than you think you are.' Finally, I began to believe him.''

For the fans, though, the most memorable thing about Zanardi has been the doughnuts.

The driver drew the ire of CART officials and wild cheering from the fans in Portland, Ore., in 1996, when he celebrated his first CART victory with a tire-smoking series of spins, known as doughnuts.

Even in the face of fines and threats of worse from CART, Zanardi couldn't resist remaining the ''Doughnut Man'' after each of his 15 CART victories.

He left to give his first love -- Formula One -- one more try in 1999. But the adjustment was just too hard, and Zanardi put himself into a one-year exile from racing in 2000, staying home in Monte Carlo with his wife, Daniela, and now 3-year-old son, Niccola.

''Mostly, all I did last year was change diapers,'' Zanardi said, smiling, after returning to CART for the 2001 season with Morris Nunn, his former Ganassi engineer and now a team owner.

''You know, things hadn't really been going all that well, but the old Alex has been emerging lately,'' Nunn said just two weeks before the crash in the American Memorial 500.

Zanardi was leading before losing control while emerging from the pits late in the race. The car spun across the high-speed oval like a brightly colored target.

One car just missed, but Alex Tagliani sliced through the cockpit of Zanardi's car at about 200 mph, cutting it in half.

Tagliani, trying to get ready for Sunday's race in Rockingham, England, thinks constantly of Zanardi.

''When I take a shower, when I brush my teeth, every five minutes I have this image of him,'' Tagliani said.

Only the immediate efforts of CART's traveling safety team saved the life of Zanardi, who almost bled to death in the cockpit.

One of the doctors said Zanardi was awake and talking as they worked to save his life.

''Thank you,'' Zanardi told him. ''I'll be all right,''

Those who know him well can only pray that he's right.

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