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!

Watch: Top 5 heartbreaks in Indy 500 history (video)

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As we near the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500, NBC Sports will be counting down some of the top moments in the race’s illustrious history, right up until May 26.

Today’s countdown features the top five heartbreaks, from J.R. Hildebrand crashing on the final turn in 2011 to hand the win to Dan Wheldon, to Robby Gordon running out of fuel in 1999 and leading to Kenny Brack’s victory.

For more Indy 500 coverage, check out NBC Sports Gold for exclusive coverage, and don’t miss the race on NBC on May 26.