DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It was a Christmas party in Munich where a high-ranking BMW executive offered Alex Zanardi the choice between racing an M8 in the world’s two most famous endurance events.
Would you prefer the 24 Hours of Le Mans or the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona?
The Italian didn’t hesitate – and with an answer many likely wouldn’t have expected.
“He probably was thinking I’d immediately say ‘Le Mans’ because for a European driver, that’s a race that represents a lot, but I had no doubt in my mind: My pick was definitely Daytona,” Zanardi said Friday in the media center at Daytona International Speedway.
“I have great respect for everyone thinking of Le Mans as a dream and down the road to do. For me it’s different. I heard so many stories about this great event (the Rolex) from drivers who had been my opponents in IndyCar. I always wanted to be part of this event. No doubt in my mind, Daytona, that’s where I wanted to go.”
With his omnipresent smile lighting up the paddock during the past two days of the Roar before the Rolex 24 test session (which drew more than 150 drivers and 47 cars to Daytona International Speedway), it seemed as if Zanardi’s decision naturally had been validated.
As he wheeled his way through the Daytona garage Thursday, Zanardi said “he couldn’t go any further than a few feet and bump into another friend with who I would love to go to dinner.”
Some of his former team members at Chip Ganassi Racing and rivals from the former CART Champ Car series were seeing him for the first time since Zanardi lost his legs in a Sept. 15, 2001 crash at EuroSpeedway Lauswitz in Germany that ended his IndyCar career.
He would return to race (using prosthetics) in the World Touring Car Series for five seasons before retiring to pursue a career as a Paralympic athlete in handcycling (winning a gold medal in the 2012 London Summer Olympics).
But the two-time CART champion has returned to auto racing in the past few years and will use hand controls to pilot the No. 24 BMW he will share with Jessie Krohn, John Edwards and Mozzie Mostert in the GTLM class. The team practiced driver swaps in between taking laps Friday.
Among the many greeting their old friend was Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya, who took over the ride at Ganassi vacated when Zanardi left for Formula One in 1999.
“I think it’s great,” Montoya said of Zanardi’s return. “To have him here in the field is amazing. He has achieved so much since his accident, it’s unbelievable.
“I think his accident normally for everyone would have been something that would bring him down. It brought new life for him. New opportunities and new things, and he’s making the most of it. And he’s still bloody quick.”
He also still has an affinity for America, which might help explain why his choice of endurance races was so easy. Zanardi made his name in this country during a magical 1996-98 run in CART, notching 15 victories with an aggressively swashbuckling style on the track but an infectious charm outside the cockpit.
That has the 52-year-old in great anticipation of making his Rolex 24 debut in three weeks.
“I can’t wait to come back because I’m sure that the stands will be filled with fans who all somehow knows what I’ve done in motorsports,” Zanardi said. “Because in Italy, it’s hard for me to walk on a normal street without getting noticed from people. Without getting stuck for a selfie or an autograph or just chatting. Here it’s different. Here people know about what I’ve done. Some of the that stuff in Italy, not a lot of people were able to feel, to touch, to understand, so it’s just fantastic.”
He was reminded of the impression he’d left in America when he went to dinner Thursday with his wife and son.
“There was this fantastic fan who I’d love not just to thank but to hug,” Zanardi said. “And he paid my check at the restaurant. And this is America!
“For some reason, you guys here in this marvelous country have this sense of community. Of wanting to be part of a common project. And I really envy you for that because you are all together in the same direction. When you recognize someone standing up and having done something that you reckon to be special, you just never get tired of telling them in any way. That fan last night, he was evidently very grateful for having me done something, which evidently he felt it was like a gift for him and for all the fans.”
Zanardi is hoping to return the gift with his first major victory here in more than 20 years (his last U.S. win in CART was July 12, 1998 at the Cleveland Grand Prix).
“It’s really difficult because to explain my emotions very well, I’d have to go for 24 hours,” he said with a laugh. “It’s very special for me. Beyond what it means to be technically driving a beautiful BMW race car for such a great organization and to be mixing up in this particular field, which has always been on what I mark for things to do.
“Finally I’m here. This is very, very special. To be in the same paddock with a lot of friends and be stopped basically every foot by a different friend I haven’t seen for a long time, it’s really sweet.”