Alex Zanardi: Don’t Dream It’s Over: Part One
Image: The Cahier Archive
As he prepares for his races in the Paralympics in September, it’s time to look at the man that is Alex Zanardi. And if you don’t laugh at some of his quotes, or be impressed by his positive outlook on life, you are not human.
By Andy Hallbery
If this story were a Hollywood film screenplay, the film would win many Oscars. Amazingly it is a true story, about a person that has such an incredible and positive outlook on life that it’s almost impossible to believe. “Inspiration” is an over-used word in life, but Alex Zanardi is, without doubt, an inspiration.
But be warned, don’t tell Alex Zanardi he is an inspiration – he can’t see it. “I’m not an inspiration, I’m the same strong Alex Zanardi I ever was.” Then he adds with his trademark smile: “I’m just a little bit lighter!”
That quote just sums the Italian up, pure and simple. By all reasoning he should have died in September 2001 when he had his sickening crash while in the lead at the Lausitzring that cost him both of his legs. Doctors Steve Olvey and Terry Trammell – absolute experts in their field – arrived at the scene 20 seconds after the impact. Trammell slipped over on what he thought was oil. It wasn’t. It was blood. They reckoned that the speed Alex was losing blood he had three minutes to live.
Roughly made tourniquets from the CART Safety Team helped quickly, a belt from one of the team wrapped around one of Alex’s legs (or what was left of it) bought them precious time.
Olvey and Trammell decided quickly to bypass the circuit medical centre, and helicoptered their patient directly straight to a trauma centre in Berlin, both fearing that he would still never survive the 40 minute flight.
Olvey, who has treated many, many drivers in his time said “It was devastating. It was like a bomb had gone off.”
“I don’t – or didn’t – remember the accident,” says Zanardi now. “It was only when I went there again things came back. Maybe it’s good that I don’t remember. My heart stopped seven times that day, I had 75 percent blood loss. I had less than one litre of blood left in my body. The only thing my heart was pumping was plasma and fresh air!”
Alex, fighting for his life, was surrounded by family and fellow drivers, who followed in a second helicopter, and stayed with him throughout the crucial days in the trauma centre.
Talk to Alex now, and it’s almost like he only had just a splinter in his thumb. He will take every opportunity to make you feel at ease with him. I interviewed him in 2002, just months after the devastating crash and felt so awkward that I didn’t know what to say. Alex realising this, ended up interviewing himself.
“There are benefits you know,” he said. “First, I can still hold my son. Second I am alive, and third I can adjust my new legs to get the optimum height to play pool….”
Alex took his racing determination to the hospital ward. Image: Alex Zanardi
The recuperation was tough, but he accepted the challenge, using the same mindset that made him a great racing driver.
The two-time CART Champion was unknown when he first arrived in America. His personality immediately won the hardened US racing press over. The man is a quote machine, and when he started doing his trademark “doughnuts” after winning, he was a firm fan favourite too. Appearances on Late Night Shows with Letterman and Leno…. Zanardi – and his humour – had arrived.
But he had unfinished business in Formula One, and for 1999 was tempted away from America by Williams to resume his F1 career. Hopes were high, but his US success didn’t translate, and a poor season demoralised the chirpy Italian. Less than a year into his three-year contract, his F1 career was over. He was replaced by a young Jenson Button.
It seemed Alex’s racing days were over too. “Then, I’d just had enough,” he says. “I wanted to ski, spend time with my family, my boat, and enjoy life.”
Image: Alex Zanardi
That didn’t last long. Late in 2000 a phone call from his former team manager Mo Nunn saw Zanardi back in a Champ Car, and he quickly signed for 2001.
The season failed to deliver the Zanardi of old, and mid-way through the year, without any real results to speak of, talk was of the Italian retiring once-and-for all at the season’s end.
Four days before the fateful German race, New York’s Twin Towers were hit by the awful terrorist attack of 9/11. With the whole Champ Car series already in Europe, the American-based teams and personnel felt a long way from home. The race was supposed to be called the Germany 500, but was renamed “The American Memorial Championship 500” to rally everyone together, and show the world that, sad as it was, life goes on, and terrorists shouldn’t stop that. There was a huge camaraderie.
However the thing that brought the biggest smiles all around was the fact that Alex Zanardi was back. After a season to forget, he led the race just like he used to, coming from the back, waving to friends Max Papis and Tony Kanaan as he passed them and made his way to the front, and was heading for what was bound to be a truly emotional victory.
Then, just 13 laps from the finish, he made his final stop for fuel. Leaving the pits, the Italian spun onto the track, and came to rest side on. Within an instant he was hit flat out with a force so strong it took the entire front of the car off.
“Yes,” he laughs now. “The car spilt in two… and so did I! I guess you could say half of Alex was in the car, the other half was all over the track.”
Months of recuperation followed, but Alex still always had a smile on his face, and a sheer determination that his new life was now beginning.
Image: Alex Zanardi/Barilla
He always had an ‘engineering’ mind, and instead of developing race cars, he began concentrating on prosthetic legs. Again with a smile: “Come on… You try on new shoes, I try new legs!”
Within a year, Alex was doing things people wouldn’t believe. But what happened in May 2003 will stick forever with anyone who was there that day. Among the tightest security, and behind closed doors, Mo Nun’s team had adapted a Champ Car to be controlled by hand throttles. Alex tested it once, and it was like he’d never been away.
Alex contemplates his run in 2003 at the Lausitzring, legs and overalls at the ready! Image: Mark Thompson/Getty Images
Champ Car returned to the Lausitzring, and in a totally moving moment they allowed Alex to finish the 13 winning laps he would have had without his accident just 20 months earlier. In his adapted 750bhp Champ Car, this wasn’t an exhibition. Far from it. Alex nailed it, lapping faster and faster, His fastest lap was over 190mph – quick enough to have put him fifth on the grid for the race that weekend! There was not a dry eye in the house. He came back to the pits with David Bowie’s Heroes playing over the tannoy, greeted by an emotional Champ Car community including most of the drivers.
Zanardi resumed racing in touring cars with BMW (“What’s the worst I could do? Break my legs? If so I will just unscrew it and plug a new one in”), winning World Championship races before retiring at the end of 2009. In that time he developed a passion for ‘cycling’, using his hands. In the handcycle division he has won the New York Marathon, and the Rome Marathon, and is targeting a medal in next month’s London’s Paralympics, representing Italy.
He will have no shortage of supporters from around the world, not just Italy.
Special thanks to Mark Thompson and Getty Images. http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/
More from Alex in part 2 about the pressures of handcycling compared to racing. Do not miss it. Click here to read part 2