Roaring down the straight toward Turn 1, scouring along at nearly
200 mph, Patrick Carpentier heard the message crackling in his
headphones: "Try to beat Zanardi! He's coming out of the pits.
Alex Zanardi had been leading CART's American Memorial 300 for 18
laps, with Carpentier almost a half minute behind. Now, as
Carpentier charged past the pits to his left, he saw Zanardi's
red Honda-Reynard wiggling out onto the course--in a rush to win,
Zanardi, as usual, was going too fast. Then Carpentier saw
Zanardi's car skid onto the rain-slicked patch of grass on the
outside edge of Turn 1. Saw the car spin in a circle and jump
just once, high and hard, as it clambered from the grass back
onto the course. Saw its slicks bounce on the pavement, its rear
end swing round. Then the car stopped, its left side facing the
feral whine of oncoming traffic.
"I saw him losing it and drifting out," recalls Carpentier. "I
saw him spinning, and it was difficult to judge his speed coming
onto the track, and I thought of going under him but I didn't, it
was so fast, so I leaned right and brushed around him. I missed
him by an inch."
Driver Alex Tagliani was chasing hard after Carpentier, about 10
yards back. He saw Carpentier sweep around Zanardi. Then he saw
Zanardi's car in front of him, growing larger as it rose very
fast toward him in the gray afternoon light. Tags had no chance.
Instinctively, he flicked the wheel left, braced himself with his
feet to the floor and heard himself scream, "Oh, no!"
April 14, 2002
Zanardi has no memory of what befell him next. It was just past
3:30 p.m. last Sept. 15 at the EuroSpeedway in Lausitz, Germany,
four days after terrorists hit the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon, and of that afternoon the last thing Zanardi recalls is
the introduction of the drivers by the public address announcer.
The rest is a void. Nor does the 35-year-old Italian driver have
any recollection of the moment nearly 20 laps before the crash
when--after wending through the field from his starting position
in 22nd place, finishing the kind of charge with which he used to
sign his name--he passed his teammate Tony Kanaan and waved
goodbye to him as he powered to the lead. As Kanaan recalls, "I
looked over and thought, It's the old Alex. He's back."
That was the afternoon's common refrain. "Everyone watching the
race said, 'Alex is back!,'" says Father Phillip De Rea, the CART
chaplain. "No matter where I went, everybody was thrilled: 'Can
you believe it? Alex is winning!'"
That the Zanardi of old had returned, after a nearly three-year
absence marked by failure and struggle, was cause for euphoria
all around the course that day. From his CART Rookie of the Year
season in 1996 through the two championship seasons that
followed, Zanardi had won over the galleries as no open-wheel
driver had in years. By the end of '98, when he defected to
Formula One in Europe, he was the most popular entertainer in the
annals of that corner of motor sports: a warm, bright, wryly
humorous soul who played the motor-racing press like a violin and
indulged the crowds by driving like a madman and spinning victory
doughnuts in blue-gray blooms of burning rubber smoke. The fans
adored him. He had returned to CART in 2001, as rusty as an old
flywheel, and it had taken nearly the entire season for him to
rediscover the feel that would put him on the lead again.
He had found it that day in Lausitz, the first time he had led a
CART race since 1998. He had the fastest car again. So he came
hammering out of the pits and ended up sideways on the track.
Tagliani T-boned him at nearly 200 mph, the hard carbon-fiber
bullet nose of his 1,550-pound missile striking Zanardi's car
between the left front wheel and the cockpit with such force that
it blew away the front of the chassis. The nose of Tags's car
lifted on impact, like a powerboat bucking a wave. "I saw many
parts flying around, and I came down boom-boom," he says.
Up in the grandstand, one of Zanardi's oldest friends from Italy,
Marilena Cavalieri, noted the stillness, eerie and sudden, that
descended on the track. "It was absolute silence," she recalls.
"No sound. Like the world had stopped."
For Zanardi, it nearly had. The collision had thrown pieces of
his car as far as 200 yards: tires and wheels, rods and screws,
chunks of fins and pods, broken sockets and cones. Thousands of
razor-fine fragments of carbon fiber had broken off in the blast
and flown like shrapnel. Worst of all, the crash had taken off
Zanardi's lower legs--his right at the knee and his left at the
thigh, four to five inches above the knee. "The force of the
crash was so violent that it didn't cut his legs off," says Steve
Olvey, CART's director of medical affairs. "It blew them off. It
was almost identical to what happens to soldiers who step on land
Along the outside fence, what was left of Alex Zanardi sat dying
in the seat of what remained of his car. Lon Bromley, CART's head
of safety, saw him and did not think he'd make it through the
extrication. "He was in deep shock from the loss of blood,"
Bromley says, "and he had that sunken, gray, shallow look, with
Terry Trammel, CART's chief orthopedic consultant, had heard the
urgent radio call from Bromley's crew as he sped in a truck
toward the crash: "We need a doc here right away!" He first saw
Zanardi through the window of the truck's cab. The large veins
and femoral arteries in the driver's legs were running like
hoses. Muttering repeated oaths--"Oh, s---! Oh, s---!"--Trammel
leaped from the cab. He figured he had about 135 seconds to save
Zanardi's life. "You've got three minutes or less to stop the
bleeding, and I figured we were already 45 seconds behind," he
From the truck Trammel had also seen what he thought was an oil
slick in front of the wreck. Running to Zanardi, the doctor
slipped and fell. He looked down and saw the blood pooling at his
feet. Zanardi was still sitting in the car, his stumps pointed
down, and the pull of gravity was draining him white. "There are
huge veins in the middle of your thighs," says Trammel, "so it
was like taking a bucket and poking a hole in the bottom of it."
After more slipping, Trammel dropped to his knees and walked on
them to Zanardi. He worked as fast as his hands could move; he
had so much to do in so little time that he felt himself moving
in slow motion. He opened an airway so Zanardi could breathe. He
barked at the crew: "We've got to shut down the blood flow! I
need some compresses!" Bromley brought him thick pads of gauze.
Trammel easily stanched the bleeding in the right leg; there was
enough loose tissue and skin to fold over the wound, and around
that he wrapped a remnant of the leg of Zanardi's suit, padding
it with wads of gauze.
The running wound in the left leg, however, Trammel could not
manage to close. Compression bandages did not work. Trammel was
almost out of time. "I need a tourniquet!" he shouted.
He did not look up. Like a surgeon at an operating table, Trammel
held out his right hand while pressing the stump with his left.
Crewman Mike Young offered his belt. Trammel quickly slipped it
over the cone-shaped stub of thigh as high as it would go and
drew it tight. The hemorrhaging stopped. Meanwhile, crew members
had taken off Zanardi's helmet. They scooted an extricator board
under his back to protect his spine, put a cervical collar on him
to stabilize his neck and lifted him out the back of the
shattered tub and into an ambulance. Trammel was tying to stick
an IV needle into Zanardi's left shoulder to stabilize his
sinking blood pressure when he saw that the belt had slipped down
the thigh. The artery was spewing blood again.
Trammel dropped the needle and tightened the belt. He went back
to the IV. Again the belt slipped loose. Every time Trammel took
both hands off the tourniquet, the belt squirmed down the
slippery thigh. So he held the belt with his left hand while
trying to insert the IV needle with his right. "What was left of
the thigh was so torn up that it was like putting a tourniquet on
Jell-O," he says.
Olvey called Trammel by radio from the track's medical center
about 500 yards away. "How bad is it?" Olvey asked.
"Really bad," Trammel said. "Both his legs are gone."
"Can we salvage anything?"
"No!" said Trammel. "There's blood and body parts all over the
track. Nothing to reattach."
"Take him straight to the helicopter," Olvey said. He met the
ambulance at the chopper, which was stationed outside the medical
center. Zanardi had lost nearly 75% of his blood. His hemoglobin
count, a measure of the oxygen-bearing protein in red blood
cells, had plunged from 16 to 4. He had used up all his clotting
factors. His skin was growing more pallid, his pulse weaker, his
breathing more erratic as he began to struggle for air.
Father De Rea had seen men die in racing accidents, and now he
stood over Zanardi and thought the driver was surely gone, he was
so pale, so weak. The priest said a prayer for the dying: "Open
the heavens. Welcome your servant." He unzipped his leather pouch
and took out the bottle of holy oil and gave Zanardi last rites,
dabbing a finger in the oil and then touching it to the driver's
forehead and bare arms. "With this oil I anoint thee," he said.
"May the Lord in his love and mercy grant you forgiveness of your
sins. I anoint you...in the name of the Father, the Son and the
Holy Spirit. Amen."
Olvey had decided to have the chopper take Zanardi to a large
trauma center in Berlin, 37 minutes away by air, rather than to a
smaller unit in Dresden, 15 minutes away. Zanardi had just been
put on the helicopter when Olvey looked up and saw Daniela
Zanardi, the driver's wife and the mother of their three-year-old
son, Niccolo, standing nearby with the actress Ashley Judd, then
the fiancee (and now the wife) of driver Dario Franchitti.
Daniela was crying. Judd had an arm around her and was reciting
scripture and talking softly to her, telling her everything would
be all right.
Olvey approached them. "I want to see my husband," Daniela said.
Olvey said that Alex was alive but unconscious, and he told
Daniela that he did not want her to see Alex right then. He did
not tell her about Alex's legs. Angry, Daniela started screaming,
"I've got to see him! I've got to see him!"
"I don't want you to see him as he is now," Olvey repeated.
Here another ambulance arrived with a badly shaken Tagliani,
whose car had careened to the right after the crash and hit the
outside wall. Had Tagliani not flicked his wheel left at that
last instant, says Olvey, he would have crashed flush into
Zanardi's cockpit and instantly killed them both. Tagliani was
taken inside the medical center as he muttered repeatedly, "How
is Alex? Where is he? Is he conscious?" Olvey and Trammel ordered
the chopper to fly immediately to Berlin. Then they went inside
the center to see Tagliani.
Judd thought Daniela should be allowed a moment with her husband.
"The helicopter's about to take off, and she hasn't had a chance
to see or touch him," Judd says. So she looked at the attendants
and cried, "You know what? She needs to see her husband!" They
all nodded. They covered Zanardi's torso with a blanket, and Judd
walked Daniela to his side.
"I swear to God," Judd recalls, "she touches her husband and says
something to him, and she anointed him with her tears, and as we
walked away, a German crew member came running over to us and
yelled, 'More life! More life!' When Daniela touched him and he
heard her voice, he had responded. With more life."
Moments later Olvey and Trammel emerged from the center and saw
that the chopper had not left. The Germans were going by the
numbers, methodically preparing to leave. The doctors gasped.
"They've got to go!" screamed Trammel. It had been 19 minutes
since the crash. Olvey figured that Zanardi already had less than
an even chance to live. Time was growing thinner than his blood.
In a panic Olvey ran over and grabbed the pilot by his shirt and
screamed at him to leave: "Fast! Now!" The startled pilot did not
understand. Olvey, waving his arms wildly, bellowed out the only
German word of urgency he could recall: "Schnell! Schnell!"
Seconds later the chopper lifted from the infield, rising in a
gust of wind for Berlin.
Perhaps no event more fully captures Alex Zanardi or demarcates
his place in Champ car racing than the final event of his rookie
season, at Laguna Seca Raceway near Monterey, Calif. It was Sept.
7, 1996, and Zanardi, having already geared through two victories
in the 16-race series, was assured of being named the year's
leading rookie. With less than one lap to go at Laguna, as
Zanardi tooled along in second place on that hilly, twisting road
course, his team owner, Chip Ganassi, felt that he had it all:
Not only had Zanardi, Ganassi's personal discovery, been the most
dominant driver of the last half of the season, but also his
Target-Ganassi teammate and good friend, Jimmy Vasser, was racing
fourth and on his way to winning the overall CART championship.
"We'd given it our best shot all day, and we were coming up
second," Ganassi recalls, "but it had been a hell of a race, and
Alex was rookie of the year, and Vasser was winning the
Zanardi and the leader, Brian Herta, were heading for the
course's perilous hilltop Corkscrew, a downward turn to the left
that sweeps into a sharp, sloping curve to the right. No fully
rational man would try to pass on the Corkscrew, particularly on
the final lap of the final race of the season. "Most people in
that situation," says veteran CART writer Jeremy West, "would
have said, 'I don't need to win the race. Don't risk damaging the
car. Just bring it home.'"
But Zanardi was cut from a different bolt of cloth. Herta climbed
to the top of that hill, whining through third and then fourth
gears, and he was just beginning the descent into the Corkscrew
when Zanardi suddenly gunned it. Swinging under Herta's car, he
grabbed the lead. Of course he was going so fast that he could
not make the left, so he just kept going straight. He bounced
over a curb, shot across a patch of gravel, just missing a wall
of tires on his right, and then jumped back on the course, still
in front. He raced to a narrow victory while Ganassi, as stunned
as anyone, yelled in Zanardi's ears by radio, "You're the Man,
Alex! You're the Man!"
Reggie Jackson had his three home runs in one World Series game,
Wilt Chamberlain his 100-point game, Secretariat his 31-length
victory in the Belmont Stakes. In the annals of CART the single
most transcendent moment, the one that still plays at dinner
parties and sells T-shirts, is Zanardi's audacious stroke at
Laguna--a move known simply as the Pass. "It was a pivotal point
in Zanardi's career, a pivotal point for CART," Ganassi says. "To
say that it was energizing is an understatement."
The Pass forever stamped Zanardi as a daring, never-say-die
charger at the wheel, setting the tone for a career in which he
would be known as the Roadrunner. Barely a year earlier, however,
Zanardi hadn't been able to find a decent job in racing. He had
driven Formula One in Europe, but he had never driven a
competitive car or come close to winning a Grand Prix event.
Hungry and unemployed in late '95, he had come to America--a
displaced European romantic resigned to prowling the paddocks of
CART from Boston to Laguna, trying to catch a ride with a racing
"I came thinking I could easily find a ride because I had Formula
One experience," says Zanardi, "but I couldn't find anybody who
would sit down with me and hear what I had to say. Nobody knew me
in America. It was difficult."
This was not how Alessandro Zanardi had dreamed it while growing
up in Castel Maggiore, a village of some 15,000 people five miles
north of Bologna where he was born on Oct. 23, 1966. He was the
younger of two children of Dino Zanardi, a passionate,
Vesuvian-tempered plumber, and his wife, Anna, a timid,
gentle-natured shirtmaker. The seismic event of Alessandro's
boyhood occurred in 1979, when his 15-year-old sister, Cristina,
a gifted swimmer with Olympic aspirations, was killed in an
automobile accident. Alessandro was 13.
"I was the crazy one, the wild one," Zanardi recalls, "and so
after Cristina died my parents became very protective of me. They
were very, very scared." They dreaded the day their only child
would turn 14 and be of age to drive a motorbike. Right before
Alessandro's birthday, Lord knows why, Dino walked into the
motorcycle shop of an old friend, Alberto Bonini, whom he hadn't
seen in eight years. Bonini was helping a boy clean his go-kart,
one of those chain-driven contraptions in which so many larval
Grand Prix drivers learn to steer at high speeds. Bonini urged
Dino to buy Alessandro a go-kart and get him into racing. "Better
for your son to burn his desire for speed on a closed circuit
than out on the street on a motorcycle," Bonini said.
"My father fell in love with the idea," Zanardi says. And the
boy, in turn, fell in love with driving karts. His first model, a
cherry-red job, cost Dino $500, and Alex recalls the first time
he sat in it as being a religious experience, an epiphany that
gave brawn and focus to his life. "It was marvelous," he says.
"That very first lap, seeing the asphalt going under me, feeling
the way the tires gripped around the turns, seeing the curbs and
grass on the sides of the circuit going by, the go-karts going
by--zooooom! It was, by far, the best day of my life. I was
already dreaming. I thought, This is it."
It was 1980. Over the next seven years, Zanardi became a major
figure in European go-kart racing. "He had a hundred eyes," says
CART driver Max Papis, a paisan who has known Zanardi since they
raced karts together as teenagers. "He could see everything that
was happening around him. And he was always very aggressive."
By the end of '87 the 21-year-old Zanardi had won three Italian
go-kart titles and the European championship. The only place to
go was up. And down: After leaving go-karts for Formula One, he
wouldn't dominate as a racer again until he came to the U.S. Like
so many young and gifted drivers, he never had a good enough car
or team. In the late '80s he barely made a ripple in Formula
Three--Double A ball to Formula One's major leagues--and his
three-year foray in Grand Prix racing, from 1992 to '94,
essentially came to grief in Belgium, in '93, after the hydraulic
shock absorbers on his Lotus sprang a leak and he crashed at Eau
Two years later, after Lotus had folded, Zanardi was adrift.
Finally he left for California, where he met Ganassi. His resume
may have been thin, but Ganassi had heard from Europeans that
Zanardi had this weird streak of genius: In '91, in an unfamiliar
car at Pau, France, over a daunting street course he had never
driven before, he astounded everybody but himself by putting his
bucket on the pole. Says Ganassi, "That would be like a
basketball player going into his first game as a college freshman
and scoring 44 points."
But Ganassi's chief engineer, Morris Nunn, wanted no part of him.
Nunn, an Englishman, believed that Italian drivers were too
emotional, too volatile to win races on a major circuit, that
they came unraveled late in a race. Indeed, Zanardi had made a
lot of mistakes and crashed his share of cars in the early '90s.
What Nunn did not know was that Zanardi's impatience had been
attenuated by Daniela's calm. She and Alex had met in 1989, when
she managed his team in Formula Three. "She was so good for
Alex," Papis says. "He believed in racing with a lot of passion.
Daniela believed in racing with a lot of rationality. She added
reason to his passion."
Ganassi ignored Nunn's skepticism and invited Zanardi to test a
car at the track in Homestead, Fla. The course has a hairpin turn
coming into the final straight, and as Zanardi swept toward it,
Nunn told Ganassi, "Watch, Chip, this guy's gonna come out of
this turn going sideways." He did no such thing. "He came out of
that turn very smooth and put the power down," says Nunn. "He was
quicker than everybody else--on every lap."
So Ganassi signed him, and Zanardi, as a driver, was reborn. As
things turned out, the Pass was but a prelude to the wildest,
most exhilarating show that Champ car racing had known in years,
at the center of which sat this amiable wisp of a man, 5'9" and
160 pounds, with the devil's own grin. For the first time in his
life Zanardi had all he needed to win at the highest levels of
his sport: a passionate owner, a gifted engineer, a well-lubed
crew and the fastest, nastiest machine that $600,000 could buy.
Oh, yes, and that elegant drawing of a pineapple on his helmet,
the classic Zanardi touch. In his rookie year he asked Nunn so
many prickly questions about his car that Nunn began calling him
Pineapple. Pretty soon the whole crew was calling him that. So,
just before the race in Portland that year, Zanardi took colored
markers and drew a large pineapple on top of his helmet. After he
won the pole and tow-roped the field for his first CART victory,
leading in 95 of 98 laps, Zanardi adopted the fruit as his
talisman. He wore that drawing on his bonnet all through '97, the
year he won five races and his first CART title, and '98, the
season he became only the third driver to win consecutive
championships, and finished third or better in an unprecedented
15 of 19 races, scoring more points in a season, 285, than any
other CART driver in history.
"He could be a lap down in a race and come back," says
Franchitti. "His single-mindedness, his determination, his
balls--the guy just never gave up." In '97, on the Mid-Ohio road
course in Cleveland, he had won the pole and was leading the
field through the first 22 laps when, thinking he had heard
Ganassi yell for him to pit, he failed to see that the lane was
closed and he came in, incurring a penalty that forced him back
to 21st place. Leaving the pit, he failed to blend in properly, a
second violation. He was in 22nd place on Lap 35. Like the Pass,
what Zanardi did over the next 50 laps would merit its own
enduring name: the Drive.
"Alex has probably overtaken more cars in more races than anyone
I've ever seen," says Nunn, a 40-year veteran of open-wheel
racing. "He would follow a guy for a few laps and all of a sudden
take him by surprise on a turn. That's what he would figure out
on the circuits: where to pass when another driver would least
Charging with a fury, Zanardi used his every feint and trick to
create the Drive. "I started challenging every corner," he says.
"Not every lap. Every corner! I was on a mission." Lap by lap,
car after car, he pressed the pedal to the floor. Finally, at Lap
85, he swept past the leader, Gil de Ferran, and five loops later
took the checkered flag. At the end, to raucous cheers, Zanardi
locked his front brakes, turned his wheels sharply left and
stepped on the gas. He was Alessandro the Great, the Doughnut
King. The doughnut had become his mark. Wheeling in circles, he
disappeared in veils of smoke, then magically reappeared like
some plumed knight out of myth.
Indeed, by the end of '98 Zanardi was sui generis: CART had never
had a driver quite like him. He brought his cappuccino maker on
the road and gave lectures on how some types of milk foam better
than others. He told jokes like his father, Dino, who had died in
'94. He made fresh pasta on television for David Letterman. He
did comical TV ads for Honda. He schmoozed with fans at
campgrounds from Mid-Ohio to Portland, aglow with
self-confidence, and in turn the fans lined up to buy his
T-shirts and ask him about the Pass and the Drive, the doughnuts
and the derring-do.
Of course the press had never heard anybody like him, either.
Reporters started calling him Latka; with that thick Italian
accent, Zanardi sounded just like the Andy Kaufman character in
Taxi. "Alex's press conferences were hysterical," recalls Robin
Miller, the veteran motor-racing writer who covered CART then for
The Indianapolis Star. "He'd talk forever. He had that great
personality and that little devilish smile. It always seemed as
if there was no place he'd rather be than right where he was. He
captured everybody's imagination. It was so refreshing to hear
Latka explain how he had raced from 28th to first and won. His
joy was infectious. He had become, by '98, the spirit of CART."
No wonder, then, the sense of loss felt throughout the circuit
when Zanardi bolted back to F/1 after his most triumphant season.
He could not let pass such a lucrative chance: $15 million over
three years to drive for the Williams team and finish all that
unfinished business in Europe. But while everything had meshed
perfectly during his three years in America, nothing worked in
his return to Grand Prix racing in 1999. After a year of
innumerable equipment breakdowns, deteriorating chemistry with
his team, and no finish higher than seventh, Zanardi quit F/1 and
went home to Monaco, where he had moved in 1995. After a year in
self-imposed exile--skiing the Alps, playing with his son and
running the white beaches of the Mediterranean--he came back to
the U.S. for another go at CART, the prodigal son returned.
He was on the very verge of reclaiming his place when he lost
control coming out of that pit in Lausitz.
"I turned my back on death," Zanardi says. In fact he nearly died
on that helicopter. He began to go into cardiac arrest, and the
German crew worked frantically to revive him. By the time he got
to the emergency room of the Berlin trauma center, 56 minutes
after the crash, his hemoglobin count was down to 3, his blood
pressure was 60 over zero, and if nothing were done, he would be
dead in 10 minutes. Doctors at once gave him blood transfusions,
a half quart per minute. "It was not clear whether the bleeding
could be stopped or whether the clotting of the blood could be
restored," says Gert Schroter, one of the attending physicians.
Daniela had arrived with Judd and Father De Rea in another
helicopter. Judd knew that Zanardi had lost his legs, but she had
said nothing about it to his wife on the way to Berlin. "I waited
for the right moment," Judd says. When that moment finally came,
Daniela reacted calmly. "I'm grateful he is alive," she said.
Zanardi entered surgery at 6 p.m., and for nearly three hours
three surgeons and four nurses worked to stop his bleeding and
clean and debride the wounds. In so doing, they cut off another
3 1/2 inches of each leg. The surgeons closed the wounds, pulling
loose skin over the right stump and attaching it, then taking
skin from the upper left thigh and grafting it onto the left
For three days after the surgery Zanardi was kept in a medically
induced coma and on artificial respiration to facilitate treating
his injuries. Though his vital signs returned to normal, the
abiding fear was that oxygen deprivation had caused permanent
kidney or brain damage. The doctors would not know until they
brought him out of his three-day sleep. Zanardi recalls waking up
in his hospital bed and seeing the face of his wife hovering over
"I love you very much," she was saying. "I'm going to stay close
to you no matter what. You've had a bad accident and have been in
a coma for many days. But everything is O.K. now. In the accident
you lost both legs, but I have been reading a lot, and someday
you'll walk again and do a lot of things that you loved to do."
Zanardi listened quietly. "I love you," he said, "and the
important thing is that I am alive. Don't worry. We'll find a way
through this. Now let me go back to sleep. I'm tired."
Recalling those first moments of consciousness, Zanardi can't
help himself. Smiling that old wry smile again, he says, "You
know what Daniela should have said to me when I woke up? What she
should have said was, 'I've got, ah...good news, and I've got,
Latka is back.
It is four months after the crash, a sunny day in January, and
Alex Zanardi steps out the backdoor of an old building outside
Bologna and makes his way slowly down a ramp and across a narrow
road into a park. He is wearing a blue sweater and gray sweat
shorts, which cover half of his titanium legs, and he is bracing
himself with two green canes as he steps, very deliberately, onto
a circle of grass. He is wearing a new pair of feet.
"You try on new shoes," he says. "I try on new feet."
He is being attended by his personal trainer, Claudio Panizzi,
who walks next to him, at times holding out his arms lest Zanardi
trip. "Step softly," Panizzi says in Italian. "Press lightly."
Zanardi leans forward on his canes, taking one step at a time.
"Don't force it," Panizzi says. "You'll gain strength in time."
Zanardi strides even more deliberately--one-two, one-two, his
steps steady on the winter grass--while Panizzi talks to him in
cadence with the steps: "Perfetto! Esatto! Perfetto!"
These are the grounds of Italy's national center for the use of
prostheses, and it is here, so near his childhood home, that
Zanardi has come to learn how to walk again. He underwent 15
surgeries to cleanse his legs of all those tiny carbon-fiber
splinters; indeed, when he came out of that induced coma, he felt
like a bug splattered on a windshield. "I was in big pain," he
says. "I'd had a lot of narcotics. There was a lag in my
thinking. If I wanted to say hello to you, I'd have to look at
you and think about it awhile before it would come. It was hard
to talk, to get things connected."
His mind cleared long before his body healed. When he first
showed up at the prosthetic center, on Jan. 3, his left stump was
still raw and bleeding slightly, and walking on it with an
artificial limb caused him considerable pain. Yet every weekday
morning he rose early at his mother's house in Castel Maggiore
and drove the nine miles to the center, in the town of Budrio,
arriving by nine to begin his long, difficult hours of
rehabilitation. They always started with that slow exit from his
BMW station wagon. After dropping the back of the passenger seat
in front, he would scoot on his hands, in a sitting position, to
the back of the wagon. There he would open the rear gate, plop
down on the end of it and unfold his wheelchair on the ground.
Then he would slide into the seat, close the door and roll up the
ramp to the center's entrance.
The early days were an adventure. On artificial legs for the
first time, bracing himself with his arms on a set of parallel
bars, he walked like a newborn foal. "I was really putting
pressure with my arms, and I was crossing my legs," he says. "I
thought, Man, I'll never be able to do it right! Then you improve
and have more feeling. You start to walk better. First time you
step on these new legs, it's bloody hard. It's painful on your
pelvic bones. But I am getting better. Every day I get more of a
feel for where my feet are."
Of course, Zanardi has thrown himself into his therapy with the
same fervor he showed as he swept through the Corkscrew at
Laguna. He has inspired other patients with his zeal for work,
says Panizzi, but he must learn to throttle down at the sharper
corners of his rehab. "He is the same as when he was driving
cars," says Panizzi. "He wants to do everything at once. He must
learn to go slower."
Not a chance. Zanardi was released from the hospital on Oct. 31,
and within two weeks he had learned how to drive his BMW with
hand controls. He was tooling along an Italian highway when Max
Papis called him on his cellphone. "What are you doing?" Papis
"About 240 kilometers an hour," Zanardi said.
Papis laughs at the thing that will never change. "I had this
picture of Alex flying past Ferraris at 140 miles an hour," he
In fact driving has been part of Zanardi's therapy. "It makes me
feel great when I'm driving and talking to my wife, and I look in
the mirror, and my son is sleeping in the back," he says. "I feel
like the head of the family again, like nothing has changed." He
has not given up on racing cars someday: "Maybe in three months
the desire to go back to racing will grow inside me so much that
I'll work very hard toward it. It will be bloody difficult, but
life is a fight, and I am always fighting. I never say never."
Zanardi seems unusually buoyant and cheerful given his
circumstances, but he confesses to occasional bouts of
melancholy: "I tend to get depressed sometimes, a little bit." On
foggy nights, driving home from Budrio, he might see a runner
slant past him in the gloom, and he'll recall when he was running
six miles in less than 40 minutes. "You get a little nostalgic
for those days, but not so bad that it causes me to cry," he
says. "Maybe that would help."
He is sitting in the prosthetic center's cafeteria, on an
espresso break, and looking down at his legs. "O.K., I'm going to
be f------ slow, but I can do things," he says. "I'm going to be
able to drive my boat someplace where I can stay two or three
weeks with my good friends and family. I'm going to be able to
swim in the sea. Once I am in the water, it will be no different
He yearns to get back to that place where nothing has changed.
"The thing that is driving me is wanting to regain my
independence," he says. For now all he wants to do is to walk
again, without a cane, and reclaim a life as close as possible to
the one he had before. For now he is simply grateful to have
escaped a more calamitous fate: "I didn't have any brain damage."
Thankful for the extraordinary life he had as a driver: "Hey, I
did something good." Humbled at having survived: "It was a
miracle that I lived." And moved by the support he has received
from so many quarters.
"I have so many fans and friends out there," Zanardi says, "and I
want them to know that Alex is back--the same Alex."
THE COLLISION THREW PIECES OF ZANARDI'S CAR AS FAR AS 200 YARDS:
TIRES AND WHEELS, RODS AND SCREWS, CHUNKS OF FINS AND PODS,
BROKEN SOCKETS AND CONES
"DANIELA WAS SO GOOD FOR ALEX," PAPIS SAYS. "SHE ADDED REASON TO
"THE THING THAT IS DRIVING ME IS WANTING TO REGAIN MY
"ALEX COULD BE A LAP DOWN IN A RACE AND COME BACK," SAYS
FRANCHITTI. "HIS SINGLE-MINDEDNESS, HIS DETERMINATION, HIS
BALLS--HE JUST NEVER GAVE UP"