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!

Hunter McElrea wins Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 Scholarship

IndyCar.com
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Hunter McElrea bested 18 competitors to win the third annual Road to Indy USF2000 $200,000 Scholarship Shootout on Sunday at Bondurant Racing School in Chandler, Ariz.

The two-day contest featured on-track competition in Formula Mazda cars as well as interview sessions and assessment from a panel of judges.

“I can’t believe it,” McElrea said at IndyCar.com. “This is definitely the most exciting opportunity that I have had in my racing career. I cannot thank Mazda and everyone enough for making this possible for me. The fact that I am going to be on the grid next year thanks to them is a dream come true.

“They have given me the opportunity to prove myself in such a high level that I never even thought I would be able to reach. I have to thank Andersen Promotions, Cooper tires, all of the judges, everyone from Mazda, the Bondurant Racing School and the other competitors, who literally pushed me to the limit.

“I am just so happy. It is still sinking in, but I just can’t wait to get next year started, and I’ll be representing Mazda in that nice Soul Red USF2000 car.”

MORE: Michael Carter wins Mazda Road to 24 shootout

The 19-year-old McElrea was born in California, but reared in Australia.

As a result of winning the award, McElrea will compete in the 2019 season of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship, the first rung of the Mazda Road to Indy development ladder.

McElrea won the Australian Formula Ford Championship this year on the strength of 13 victories in 21 races.

Early competition resulted in a final field of six drivers that included Jake Craig, Michael Eastwell, Braden Eves, Flinn Lazier and Ross Martin. They competed in a qualification session and 30-minute simulated race. McElrea won that race.

“Today was an incredible day,” said Tom Long, Mazda Motorsports factory driver and one of the judges. “There was so much talent here for the shootout. Hunter McElrea just rose to the top when it was time to shine, but our decision was very, very difficult.

“In the end, given all of the circumstances, we were able to make a pretty good decision and we are really, really proud of not only Hunter but our whole team here with Mazda to be able to grant this $200,000 scholarship for his opportunity in USF2000 next year.”