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Alex Zanardi: Don’t Dream it’s over: Part Three

Submitted by on September 4, 2012

Alex Zanardi Paralympics

 On Wednesday September 5, 2012, Alex Zanardi tackles his first Paralympic event in the handcycle class at Brands Hatch. I’m sure everyone in the motorport community will be cheering all the competitors on, especially Team GB. But I have little doubt that they will be cheering Alex just that little bit more.

If you’ve read parts one and two [links], you’ll know by now how just a great guy Italy’s Alex Zanardi is – a former F1 racer and CART champion and a guy that will not give up. So here are my personal recollections, and moments with him. However sad your day might be, just one minute with Alex will reignite your smile.

I will start with the first time I was due to have dinner with him. It was at Spa, Belgium 1993, and the Lotus PR officer Anita Smith arranged for me, my Autosport colleague Joe Saward, her and Alex to have dinner. Alex was looking forward to it. Then, that morning, this happened…

It was one of those accidents that drew your breath. Once we heard he was “just battered and bruised”, Joe and I guessed that dinner was off. Anita was having none of it. “Don’t be stupid,” said Anita. “Go there, I will go and see Alex in hospital and join you.”

So Joe and I did. Anita arrived with tears in her eyes. “He’s ok, he’s got two massive black eyes, aches all over. Oh and he says ‘enjoy dinner, sorry I can’t be there… but well something’s got in the way!’” Humour from hospital… That crash kept him out of racing for almost a year.

The next, and possibly the most famous, is The Pass. The most ridiculous, last lap lunge to take the lead from Bryan Herta to win the CART race at Laguna Seca. No matter how many times you see it, it makes you ask ‘how on earth did he do that?’

Herta: “Having lost so spectacularly to Zanardi at Laguna then, it was so satisfying for me to win there the next year,” he says. “It was a nice piece of vindication for me.

“In the late ’90s in CART, racing with Zanardi was a pretty amazing time,” adds Herta. “I was angry with him a lot of the time then! But I look back and I have a lot of respect for his ability on the road courses in those cars – and I’m sure the other guys racing then would agree.”

There are so many other stories I can tell, (his newfound ability to rotate his prosthetic legs to “make it easier to balance my dinner while watching TV”, or in 2002, just months after his accident: “I’ve done a lot in my career… so I can take a break, right?” Or from Toronto, his first visit back to a CART race in 2002, “it’s been a long day for me. I flew over from Europe, and I didn’t shower. I hope you understand.” Or when he resumed racing, “what can I do? If I break my legs I just plug in new ones. Perhaps the one that sums him up best is: “I’m determined to live life… because life is great!”)

My absolute personal favourite though was in November 2003. I was helping Autosport magazine with the video images to be played at the prestigious Autosport Awards. Alex was to receive the Gregor Grant Award for Lifetime Achievement – but he couldn’t make it to London to accept it. So… We went to Monaco to present it to him there.

Three of us, at Luton Airport at 5am, a cameraman, sound guy, and me with a big trophy – we had a lot of baggage for a day trip! We arrived in Nice, and while the crew rented a car, I went to the loo, restroom, call it what you will…. And Alex called!! “You guys landed here yet?? Want me to come and pick you up?” Trying not to laugh at the surreal situation I was in that very moment, I said no it’s ok, we are renting a car, we have a lot of equipment.

The Autosport Awards Trophy.  Image:  LAT Photographic

 So we drove from Nice to Monaco and met up with Alex. Rules in Monaco mean you can’t film there without an expensive permit, we knew that, and Alex knew that. I said it’s only two minutes we need. He said “it’s not worth the fine, anyway, I know a good spot that is in France with all of Monaco in the background. Follow me.

So we ‘chased’ Alex – not followed – in his hand-control adapted BMW wagon, to this remote location. We parked in this tiny, desolate, car park, with the crew giving me that ‘are you sure?’ look. Then we walked for at least 10 minutes on a gravel path by the sea (remember Alex is on prosthetic legs) to the spot to check out the location. It was perfect.

So the crew went to get the camera, sound and lighting stuff, and typical Alex he said: “You appreciate it if I don’t come and help with that…”

We set up, and for what was to be a two-minute acceptance speech… We were shooting for an hour plus! At the end of each take Alex would say… “That was good… but I have an idea, let’s do another one.” We must have done between 15 and 20 takes, all brilliant, then the next one better as Alex’s mind went into overdrive.

We finished, carried all the equipment back to the tiny car park, and just as we were about to load the car, Alex said: “Wait I have one more idea… How about I wish everyone a Happy New Year from my car, and drive away…? Like James Bond into the sunset…!”

Brilliant.

So we did. I have no idea how many ‘laps’ Alex did of the desolate car park, but he would pull up by the camera, wind the window down, lean out and say “Thank you everyone for the Award. I hope you have a good night there. I wish I could be with you, but I have to go” And would drive off. Perfect.

Not for Alex… “I have a better idea… I will do it again, and when I say ‘bye’, camera nod with me when I say it.” Off he went, did the same thing, the same ‘Happy New Year’, then he ended it with (which totally caught us off our guard), “this is Monaco, you guys, watch out for the dogshit when you leave!” The cameraman nodded his camera and Alex drove off. We fell about laughing, because that wasn’t the word he’d said to us before!

That was the cut we used, and the guys at Autosport were extremely wary of having a huge video to 1400 extremely important motorsport people and the word “dogshit” as the finale to a gala banquet evening.

Hats off. They were brave and went with it that night for the Autosport Awards… and it brought the house down with a deserved standing ovation.

Alex definitely has a future a TV director! One day… But not yet!

In testing for the events he once again ran his chair at the Lausitzring… Another emotional reuninon at the spot that almost claimed his life and did claim his legs.

Video credit: BMW Motorsport

I know Para athletes don’t like being called brave. So let’s call Alex “determined”. This photo was taken by Ralph Hardwick, around 15 seconds before the crash the changed Alex’s life. It’s an image emotional beyond belief, poignant, and the start of a new life for someone who brings a smile to so many people.

Alex Zanardi pitstop

Image: Ralph Hardwick

By Andy Hallbery

My very, very special thanks to Peter Higham and Laura Coppin from Autosport, LAT Photographic and Ralph Hardwick Photos

Huge thanks also to Alex Zanardi. Follow him – and cheer him on – Twitter @lxznr, and his website alex-zanardi.com

And of course follow @MotosportRetro and @Hallbean on Twitter and join in on the discussion on Facebook. What’s your favourite Zanardi moment? Let us know.

That was then, this is now, 2012.

If you want to follow Alex in the Paralympics, here is his schedule:

On Weds Sept 5 his start time at Brands Hatch for the Time Trial is at 1510 BST/1610GMT. He races again in the Road Race on Fri Sept 8 at 1630BST/1530GMT and in the Team Relay for Itlaila at 1745BST/1645GMT on Sat Sept 9.

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