Tuesday, September 13, 2016

1,000 Words: Alex Zanardi

I am going to try something new. We all know the cliché "a picture is worth 1,000 words" and for some reason over the last few days I was thinking a person is worth at least 1,000 words, probably if not definitely more. What this new feature (if you want to call it that) will be is at least 1,000 words about a person in motorsports or a person that was in motorsports, a historic event I want to revisit, a track or something in between. It will be a way to pay tribute to somebody or something or it will be a way to open a discussion or just be a way to share stories. I am not sure how often these "1,000 Words" pieces will be. I think one a month is a good start. I will do it for the rest of 2016 and if people like them, I will continue into 2017.

Without further ado, let's get into the first 1,000 Words and as you can tell from the title, it is about an inspiring man.

Just over four years ago, Alex Zanardi won two gold medals and a silver medal in the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London and he was impressive. He won the time trail by over 27 seconds. He won the road race and he and Italians Vittorio Podesta and Francesca Fenocchio finished second in the mixed team relay.

His Paralympic success shouldn't have surprised me or anyone who has been following the Italian for the last twenty-five years. Despite losing his legs nearly fifteen years ago, Zanardi has not stopped proving himself. Less than two years after his accident at the Lausitzring with 13 laps to go, he returned and completed those 13 laps with the help of hand controls. His fastest lap would have put him fifth on the grid for the CART race that weekend. The following year, he returned to full-time competition in the European Touring Car Championship. He would transition with the series to the World Touring Car Championship and would win a race at Oschersleben.

After his second season in WTCC, which saw Zanardi win a race at Istanbul, he tested a BMW Sauber Formula One car. He continued racing in the WTCC and added two more victories over the next three seasons. While running in the WTCC, he picked up hand cycling and competed in the New York City Marathon, finishing fourth despite limited training. He made a goal for himself to compete in the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games.

As someone who didn't get to see Zanardi in his prime giving Bryan Herta nightmares with absurd passes at Laguna Seca and Long Beach, I really hoped his on-track success, in car and hand cycle, would lead to more. If he could win in the World Touring Car Championship, if he could test a Formula One car, if he could finish fourth hand cycling in the New York City Marathon, why couldn't he return and become the first man without legs to compete in the Indianapolis 500? There have already been three one-legged men to compete in the race and they all competed in an era without much technological advancement for people with disabilities. Zanardi could easily compete in the Indianapolis 500. He might have to train and become race fit but so far he hasn't failed in any goal he has set for himself. He returned to racing once before and found the pace needed to win. He has become one of the best hand-cyclists in the world. The question is not if he could qualify for the Indianapolis 500 but where on the first three rows would he start?

Zanardi is in a small grouping of great IndyCar drivers never to race the Indianapolis 500. Him and Greg Moore are the two that stand out. It is a shame the American open-wheel politics of the 1990s robbed these two drivers and others from shining on the grandest stage in American motorsports and it also robbed us fans from marveling at their greatest. He said he was interested in Indianapolis after his Paralympic success in 2012. It didn't happen, or rather it hasn't happened yet but it is understandable why Chip Ganassi or Jimmy Vasser would be hesitant to put him in a car. Nobody wants to see Zanardi get in another big accident and neither would want that on their conscience and nobody can blame them. Despite not attempting the Indianapolis 500, since 2012 Zanardi has tested a DTM car, raced in the Blancpain Sprint Series and competed in the Spa 24 Hours last year with Timo Glock and Bruno Spengler. Not to forget mentioning that Zanardi completed the 2014 Ironman World Championship in less than ten hours.

It is kind of amazing when you consider Zanardi's career and he has been legless for most of it. I think many of us, especially in the United States, either forgets or doesn't even know he made 25 Formula One grand prix starts before coming to CART in 1996 with Chip Ganassi Racing. He was the guy who replaced the guy (Roberto Moreno) who replaced Michael Schumacher at Jordan Grand Prix in 1991. His lone Formula One point was after finishing sixth in the 1993 Brazilian Grand Prix, the final time Ayrton Senna won in front of his home crowd. Zanardi's career stretches back over a quarter of a century and his glorious ability behind the wheel of a car is captured in three mesmerizing years. Maybe he got his shot at Williams a year too early or maybe, considering his teammate in 1999 Ralf Schumacher finished in the points in 11 of 16 races, Zanardi's skills would have never crossed over well into Formula One. Motorsports is much more complex than Formula One is the best series and if a driver can't succeed there but can succeed elsewhere than elsewhere is crap. Zanardi might not have succeeded in Formula One but he was one of the best of his era.

Alex Zanardi motivates me everyday. Seeing him continue his racing career and start another successful career hand cycling inspired me to start running on regular basis and slowly work my way from two-mile laps around the block twice a week to regular 10-kilometer runs and now preparing to compete in a half-marathon and after that making the step to compete in a marathon. Blisters don't stop me, knee aches don't seem so bad, only a really cold day, I am talking below 20º Fahrenheit, or days with rain and/or snow pelting down will keep me in. I am sure I am not the only person inspired by Zanardi to become physically active and challenge myself. Seeing him competing again at the Paralympics and the fact he will be competing on the 15th anniversary of his Lausitz accident shows that the accident didn't end his career but rather caused a short hiatus. He returned from what was near fatal and continues to challenge himself. I don't know how Zanardi will do in this year's Paralympics. I don't know if he going to defend his two gold medals or fail to get on the podium altogether but that isn't going to change how I see him. He is an inspiration to not quit and if he can achieve all that he has in the last fifteen years considering all that he lost than the everyday obstacles in front of you and me are surmountable.

Perhaps Zanardi, who turns 50 years old this October 23rd, will again find himself in a race car. Maybe it will be in a LMP2 car or a GTE car at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Maybe he will race in GT3 or return to touring cars. Or maybe Zanardi gets his chance at Indianapolis. Even if he doesn't, don't expect Zanardi to slow down.