- Nearly 18 years after losing his legs in a horrific crash, 52-year-old Alex Zanardi, a two-time CART series champion turned Paralympian, is returning to an American racetrack for the first time.
With his left hand on the steering wheel, Alessandro Zanardi simultaneously applies pressure to a hand-operated brake and presses a paddle to downshift with his right hand, weaving through the corner before sending the #24 BMW M8 GTE rocketing into the straight. There’s no footwell and no brake pedal—because Zanardi has no legs.
The 52-year-old Zanardi, a two-time CART champion and inventor of the post-race doughnut celebration, is returning to an American racetrack at 24 Hours of Daytona for the first time since his accident in 2001, when a crash at Germany’s EuroSpeedway Lausitz severed both his legs. His BMW Team RLL teammates will tackle the 24-hour endurance race—designed to test the durability and stamina of cars and drivers—in individual three-hour stints beginning on Jan. 26. Zanardi prepared early in January, mastering the driver change, before his first endurance race without his prosthesis.
“I have to admit: the very first lap felt a little weird,” Zanardi says. “It was time to go, I had the engine running and I looked down at that emptiness. I thought, 'Are we not missing something here? Are we sure about what we’re doing?' To make a step forward from a physical point of view, I think this has been a total success. To drive the car, it’s almost as good as it can get.”
Zanardi competed in his first long-distance race with his prosthesis in 2015. The Italian speedster says he performed well enough, but his prosthesis made it difficult to physically keep up with his teammates. BMW engineers approached him afterward and asked how they could help him become a better driver.
His solution? Ditch the prosthesis and compete legs-free.
This past August, Zanardi finished fifth at the DTM Misano 2018 in his first race without prosthesis. The fifth-place finish, Zanardi says, felt like a gold medal (he’d know: he has four Paralympic gold medals in handcycling). January's 24 Hours of Daytona checks off a bucket-list item for Zanardi and it also marks his return to North America. The place where he became a sensation, and the place where he tried to recapture his magic.
Before he ever visited the U.S., Zanardi was a successful go-kart racer and a less successful Formula One driver. Zanardi signed with Team Lotus in 1993 and continued his Formula One career. But, when they collapsed and folded a year later, Zanardi was out of a job. And, he was broke.
Zanardi’s go-kart career and Formula 3000 (Formula One’s minor leagues) success was enough to earn an invitation to visit New Hampshire for the penultimate race of the 1995 Indy Car World Series. He thought his Formula One experience would net him a job. Zanardi was wrong: he discovered he was a relative unknown in the U.S. He returned to Italy, still jobless.
“I had a second trip planned to the last race in Laguna Seca, and I questioned myself whether that was worth it,” Zanardi says. “Because at the time I didn’t have any money for me to buy an airline ticket, rent a car, hotel, and so on. I second-guessed the utility of that trip.”
It was Daniela, Zanardi’s then-girlfriend and current wife, who pushed him to go, bought a second ticket, and went to Monterey with him. They went back to America in September and they met Chip Ganassi, who, to Zanardi’s surprise, was in the market to add another driver to his team. Weeks later, Zanardi signed on.
The second trip was worth it. Zanardi earned 14 first-place finishes and two consecutive CART Drivers Championships over the next three years. He became an instant star and, one year after Zanardi met Ganassi for the first time in Monterey, he reenergized CART racing at Leguna Seca with “The Pass”. On the last lap, Zanardi cut inside Ryan Herta, went off the track, straight-lined through the Corkscrew and won the 1996 PPG IndyCar World Series. The daring maneuver proved Zanardi could do almost anything on the racetrack.
Zanardi’s stardom peaked and he left CART for a one-year stint with Formula One. He never placed higher than seventh in the 1999 season and, disappointed, Zanardi went on a self-instated one-year sabbatical. He wasn’t gone for long, though. Zanardi returned to CART in 2001 and attempted a comeback in the country that proved his racing merits.
The 34-year-old’s return received a boost with two top-10 finishes in July. Six weeks later, Zanardi led with 10 laps to go at the 2001 American Memorial (CART was the only U.S.-based competition to compete on the weekend after 9/11). The comeback story was in the works. But Zanardi came out of the pits, slid on damp grass and into oncoming traffic. Oncoming driver Alex Tagliani narrowly avoided crashing directly into Zanardi, but the impact severed Zanardi’s legs. CART's director of medical affairs compared the trauma at the time to what happens when a soldier steps on an IED.
“Everything you do tends to make you accomplish another step on the road to complete yourself,” Zanardi says now. “Certainly, the accident. It’s been quite a big step in that process.”
Zanardi barely escaped death. But two weeks after he was released from the hospital, Zanardi was back behind the wheel. Dissatisfied with his first pair of prosthetic legs, he designed and developed his own. Zanardi was driving competitively again in the European Touring Car Championship in 2003 with his prosthesis. He took up handcycling and won four gold medals for Italy at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympic Games. This September, he set the Ironman world record for his category.
Another challenge, another instrument. And now Zanardi is back in North America, at Daytona, ready to reclaim the magic he left on the track in 2001.
“Here is where I turned my life around,” Zanardi says, “More than anything, it’s the fans. They gave me this great privilege of turning this passion into a profession. This all goes on top of the fact that Daytona 24 has always been on my book as one of the things that I wanted to do because I heard so much about this race when I living in the U.S. And I never had the opportunity to participate.”
When talking to Zanardi about his recent handcycling events and Ironman races, it’s clear he carries the same wily speedster mentality on any course. Zanardi brags about opponents partnering and working against him. He talks about gauging the tiredness in his opponents’ faces and knowing how they’ll fare in the race. He lost his legs, but he didn’t lose his instincts.
“I had better talent, but I was not as wise as I am today,” Zanardi says. “Right now, probably what I can deliver is not as good as what I could deliver in my mid-twenties. But the result is by far better because, out of what I have, I always bring out the best possible result.”
Zanardi isn’t done racing, yet.
“The real privilege as part of my age I still believe my journey is not finished, not over.”