A happy birthday to Alex Zanardi, still an inspiration

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Hero, icon, legend, and inspiration are just a handful of superlatives one can bestow on Alex Zanardi. The two-time CART champion and more recently, Paralympic Gold Medalist, turns 47 today.

Zanardi’s car racing career never really got going despite several cracks at Formula One in the early 1990s before he was hired by Chip Ganassi to drive one of his two Target Reynard-Hondas in the CART championship for the 1996 season.

From there, Zanardi’s career took off. He won three races and Rookie-of-the-Year honors in 1996, culminating with quite possibly the most memorable last-lap pass on a road course in history – “The Pass” on Bryan Herta at Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew.

Back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998 followed, with a number of comeback drives. He also introduced the racing world to victory “donuts.” What are standard and seemingly part of the victory routine now can be traced back to the joyful exuberance Zanardi exhibited during his first CART run.

His return to F1 in 1999 with Williams failed to bear fruit. He didn’t score a single championship point and came back to CART in 2001 with Mo Nunn, but it was a difficult season.

Then, of course, came his near-fatal accident at the Lausitzring in Germany, when Zanardi’s car spun exiting the pits and was speared side-on at more than 200 mph by Alex Tagliani, who had nowhere to go. Though Zanardi lost a lot of blood and both his legs in the accident, his spirit never faltered, and in fact grew.

He won Touring Car races in Europe with hand controls, then shifted to hand cycling, where he won Gold and Silver medals in the 2012 London Paralympics.

Zanardi made a trip to Indianapolis for this year’s 500, where he was presented with the car in which he won the 1996 Laguna Seca race. At the 500, he was reunited with longtime friends and on-track rivals Dario Franchitti, Max Papis and Tony Kanaan, the latter of whom scored an overdue first win in the race.

There’s rarely been a driver to have made as big an impact on U.S. racing from Europe as Zanardi has. It speaks volumes of his character and spirit that he remains one of the most popular figures in the racing community to this day.

Happy birthday, Alessandro!

March 28 in Motorsports History: Adrian Fernandez wins Motegi’s first race

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While auto racing is an international sport, oval racing remains uniquely American. 

That almost always has remained the case since the inception of the sport, but in 1998, the citizens of Japan got their first taste of American oval racing.

Having opened the previous year, Twin Ring Motegi was built by Honda in an effort to bring Indy-style racing to the Land of the Rising Sun. 

Adrian Fernandez was the first driver to win at the facility, taking the checkered flag in CART’s inaugural race after shaking off flu earlier that day.

Fernandez held off a hard-charging Al Unser Jr to win by 1.086 seconds. The victory was the second of his career and his first since Toronto in 1996.

Adrian Fernandez celebrates with Al Unser Jr and Gil de Ferran after winning the inaugural race at Motegi. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

The race was also memorable for a violent crash involving Bobby Rahal.

Running third with 15 laps remaining, Rahal’s right front suspension broke in Turn 2, causing his car to hit the outside wall and flip down the backstretch.

Luckily, Rahal walked away from the accident without a scratch.

“The car was on rails through (turns) 1 and 2, and all of a sudden it just got up into the marbles, and it was gone,” Rahal said. “Thank God we’ve got such safe cars.”

The following season, Fernadez went back-to-back and won again at Motegi. The track remained on the CART schedule until 2002.

In 2003, Honda switched their alliance to the Indy Racing Leauge, and Motegi followed suit.

The track continued to host IndyCar racing until 2011 with the final race being held on the facility’s 2.98-mile road course, as the oval sustained damage in the Tōhoku earthquake earlier that year.

Also on this date:

1976: Clay Regazzoni won the United States Grand Prix – West, Formula One’s first race on the Long Beach street circuit. The Grand Prix would become an IndyCar event following the 1983 edition of the race.

1993: Ayrton Senna won his home race, the Grand Prix of Brazil, for the second and final time of his career. The victory was also the 100th in F1 for McLaren.

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