Don’t Bet Against Alex Zanardi

The fan base of the Verizon IndyCar Series has a history of being fractured at times. Between “The Split”, ovals versus road/street courses, aero kits and Sage Karam – there are a lot of things that IndyCar fans disagree over. One thing that most fans do agree on is that Alex Zanardi is an inspirational and very likeable figure.

It’s hard to believe that it has been nearly fourteen years since Zanardi’s near-fatal crash at the Lausitzring in Germany.

After winning the CART championship in 1997 and 1998 while driving for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Zanardi pursued his Formula One dream with Williams for the 1999 season. Zanardi had been in Formula One before and did not experience success. With his success at Ganassi in CART, he was expected to excel with a proven team. On paper, it sounded like a great opportunity. Williams was just one year removed from a run where they won the F1 driver’s championship four out of six years.

Unfortunately for Zanardi, the year before his arrival; Renault ended their relationship with Williams. The Mecachrome engine was a poor substitute for the dominant Renault. Williams only managed three podiums in 1999; all scored by Zanardi’s teammate, Ralf Schumacher. By the end of 1999, Zanardi was gone from Williams.

After a dormant 2000 season; Zanardi was signed by Mo Nunn, who had been with him during his championship years at Ganassi, for Nunn’s still new team that was started one year earlier. Mo Nunn Racing was not at the same level of the Ganassi teams Zanardi had driven for just a few years earlier. After fourteen races, Zanardi had no podiums and only three Top-Ten finishes.

And then, CART travelled to Germany. It was the weekend following the 9/11 attacks, when most sporting events had been cancelled. Given the fact that international travel would have made a makeup date almost impossible, CART chose to run the race. Zanardi was having his best race of the season and was leading when he pitted in the closing laps. When he exited the pits, he spun on his cold tires and landed helplessly in the center of the track, turned broadside directly in front of the two approaching Player’s cars of Patrick Carpentier and Alex Tagliani. Carpentier swerved and was able to avoid Zanardi, but the trailing Tagliani could not.

What happened was probably the most gruesome accident I’ve ever seen without there being a fatality. In shearing off the nose of Zanardi’s car at well over 200 mph, Zanardi’s legs were sheared off as well – one just below the knee, the other just above. Had it not been for the quick work of Drs. Steve Olvey and Terry Trammell; Zanardi would have bled to death on the track. As it was, Zanardi lost almost 75% of his blood volume in a matter of moments. Zanardi suffered further amputations of his legs in order to stave off infection. He was fitted with prosthetic limbs and underwent extensive rehab.

His appearance, abilities and life were all changed forever. Most people would have justifiably allowed such a change to defeat them and forever ask “Why me?” as they tried to master simple tasks involved with everyday living. But that’s not Alex Zanardi.

Alex Zanardi was easily one of the most popular drivers during his time in CART. He had an attacking style on the track, but an ultra-positive outlook coupled with an ever-present infectious smile off the track. In interviews, he came across as someone you just wanted to be around.

Nothing has changed. Surely Zanardi experienced moments of self-doubt or grief after his accident; but you’d never know it. He attacked overcoming his new physical condition with as much vigor as when he attacked overcoming Bryan Herta in the corkscrew at Laguna Seca in 1996. He was relentless.

Two years after his crash, Zanardi returned to the Lausitzring to drive a modified Indy car. It was therapeutic for him to drive the thirteen laps that remained in the race when he had his accident at the very track where it took place. But Zanardi wasn’t finished. He has competed in Touring Car races and even drove a modified Formula One car in 2006. The following year, Zanardi took fourth in the New York Marathon’s handcycling division. In 2012, Zanardi won a gold medal at the Paralympic Games in London.

With all of the success that Zanardi has enjoyed in the fourteen years since his accident, he yearns for more. Last week, talk surfaced that Zanardi was seriously interested in competing in next year’s 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Now, for the first time, IndyCar fans are divided when it comes to Alex Zanardi.

There is the one side that says he should do it. Not only would this be a great story for IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500, this would be great for Zanardi. Coming to CART for the 1996 season, Zanardi was a victim of “The Split”. He got caught up in the politics between the owners in CART and the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had no dog in the hunt. He just wanted to race – and win. However, the politics dictated that he would never race in the Indianapolis 500. It looked like he may at least get to race on the IMS road course in 2000 with Formula One, but that was not to be after the dismal season that Williams endured in 1999.

Then there is the side that thinks that Zanardi should let this dream go. He will be forty-nine before next May and he hasn’t competed in an Indy car since that fateful day in Germany. They say that Zanardi has nothing else to prove to anyone and that he should focus on dreams that are more attainable.

Put me in the first camp. I think he should do it. I’ve heard some say that something could happen. That could be said for all thirty-three drivers that drove last May. It can be said every year. Sometimes bad things do happen. That’s why racing is a dangerous sport.

When I read that Zanardi should focus on dreams more attainable, I shake my head and laugh. I’m glad that in the early sixties that NASA didn’t listen to those that said the moon wasn’t attainable. Had Rudy Ruettiger listened to everyone around him, he would have been destined to working in a Joliette, Illinois plant instead of fulfilling his dream of playing at Notre Dame and parlaying that into a movie and celebrity status. How on earth can anyone seriously suggest to someone that they need to lower their sites when they dream? And who but Alex Zanardi can answer what is left for him to prove? He may have nothing to prove to you or to me, but who can say what he needs to prove to himself? That’s called inner-drive. That’s called motivation.

Those in the know say this could happen in a joint venture between Chip Ganassi and Jimmy Vasser, who was Zanardi’s teammate for three seasons and currently co-owner of KV Racing. While Ganassi sounds less enthused about the whole idea, Vasser warns everyone to watch out if Zanardi is serious about something. He says that when Zanardi wants something, there is no stopping him.

The naysayers say that Zanardi should be serious about winning and not just making the show. My question is – Who said Zanardi just wants to make the show? I think he is dead-serious about winning the race.

There are many veterans I think wouldn’t have a chance to pull off an Indianapolis 500 victory, no matter what kind of equipment they’re in. In 2012, Jean Alesi came out of retirement to race a Lotus. He lasted ten laps before he was parked for going too slow. Even if he had been in the Target DW12 that won the race, Alesi would never have been a factor. I seriously doubt that Jeff Gordon could come to Indianapolis for a month and be competitive.

Maybe I’m delusional or my judgment is clouded by the fact that I really admire the guy, but I really think Zanardi could pull it off. If anyone can do it, he can. Before his accident, Zanardi showed grit and determination as a racer. After his accident, he proved he was a winner in life. I’ve never met Alex Zanardi, but from what I’ve witnessed from afar – I agree with Jimmy Vasser. When Zanardi gets serious about something, there is no stopping him.

If Alex Zanardi gets serious about running the 2016 Indianapolis 500 – I wouldn’t bet against him. And I’ll bet that that’s something we can all agree upon.

George Phillips

14 Responses to “Don’t Bet Against Alex Zanardi”

  1. Br!an McKay Says:

    I’m second to vote today, but I have no comment except “thanks for blogging.”

  2. Well, it would be a ratings winner. Why not?

  3. Ron Ford Says:

    Only a fool would bet against him. Once having appropriate experience I don’t think Alex would race if he thought he would be a hazard to the other drivers.

  4. I have heard comments from so called “expert sports reporters” that say they just don’t see it happening because of his age combined with his time away from IndyCars. I would not rule him out. Anyone with his motivation and drive should not be second guessed after what he has been through in his life. It’s is not like he is not in good enough physical shape either. As a side note; imagine what it would do for the ratings? All the non-motorsports versed drive by media would jump on the story. It would be like the Tim Tebow phenomenon. Every Tom, Dick and Harry would have an opinion at the water cooler.

  5. I would love to see it happen. What a great storyline. And the thought of the response from 250000 people in the stands if he took the lead in the race gives me goosebumps.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    Does Alex Zanardi have to prove that a driver missing the use of both legs can compete at Indianapolis? Of course not, his legacy is impressive as it is. But if he can pass the rookie test and qualify for the race, why not? If entered, especially in a Ganassi car, I would expect him to do both of those things.

  7. I would love to see him race in the 500, and he would be a contender to win! I wish I could find the complete video of his driving those final laps two years after his crash.Each lap was faster than the previous, and all were at speeds that would have had him running in the lead pack in the race, which was run shortly after hid drive. The stands were packed for his run and as he drove the final lap, with the checkered flag waiting for him, everyone was standing and cheering and even the veteran racing announcers were so overcome with emotion they were speechless.
    The only one not completely overcome was Alex who was smiling and appreciated what he had just done, but his attitude seemed to be that he has just done exactly what he expected to do.
    Alex running in the Indy 500 next May will bring more positive attention and more viewers to IndyCar than ever before in history. The Speedway would be well advised to put back up all the stands that have been removed and put more down the back stretch because people will come from all over the world to see him in that race.

  8. Bruce Waine Says:

    George – Great article.

    Yes, one cannot help but like & admire Alex.

    Less than five years ago or so while I was standing by the entrance to Gasoline Alley during the pre-race walk of the teams and drivers entering Pit Lane, I can still recall that broad smile as Alex was walking with Chip when they were just about to walk under the Gasoline Alley sign to enter the pit areas.

    What was more remarkable was the spontaneous, outrageous noise (cheers!) that emanated from the spectators when they recognized the person walking with Chip as being Alex .

    That in it itself spoke of the respect and admiration of Alex.

    Not to mention the uplifting positive effect that it must have had on Alex if he ever wondered how he would be received at Indy.

  9. ecurie415 Says:

    If Michael Johnson can race in the MRTI at IMS with paralyzed legs, Alex can do it too. Regarding the commenter above and what Alex has to prove to IMS, Michael told me that you must demonstrate to the IMS officials that you can extricate yourself from the car under your own power. I have no doubt Zanardi can do that.

  10. If he can do it, and get a ride from a team owner, more power to him. But I don’t think, after all this time, its realistic to think he can win. He might not even have been able to win in his prime.

    I think Jeff Gordon might surprise you if he decided to race. Unfortunately he has made it pretty clear he won’t

    • Alex did have a win and a 3rd (and that 3rd was less than 0.3 seconds behind winner Greg Moore in 1999, plus Alex led the most laps that day) in three 500 mile starts at Michigan, so I’d say that he was more than capable of winning a 500 mile race in his prime.

      As for 2016, I could see Alex running in the top-15 or even top-10, if given Ganassi-level equipment, though a win is probably pretty far fetched in this stacked field. But, like manik56 mentions below, just starting the race would be a great story, and I hope he makes it work, too.

  11. Qualify? Maybe. I expect a larger bump day for the 100th. Win? Not a chance. Age and no recent experience in the car would do him in. But he doesn’t have to win for it to be worth doing. Like Kurt Busch and the double, the journey is what matters most.

  12. I can’t think of a better storyline at Indy. And due to the “split”, Alex was robbed at his chance at Indy. I think a ton of people would tune in….an amazing sports/human achievement story. If he won or did very well, I can’t imagine a dry eye in the house. I hope he does it with a full effort and top tier team! Godspeed Alex!!

  13. So I have thought about this before, who are the best “split” drivers who never got to run the 500? Alex is for sure the best but Greg Moore, Mark Blundell and, sigh, Parker Johnstone would have been fun to watch in the big race.

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