Alex Zanardi rekindles love affair with America at Rolex 24

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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.”

Supercross: Husqvarna’s Jalek Swoll and Malcolm Stewart out with injury

Swoll Stewart injury
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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Jalek Swoll and Rockstar Energy Husqvarna teammate Malcolm Stewart sustained injury in separate crashes late last week. Stewart missed Anaheim 2 and Swoll will not mount up for the 250 East season opener in Houston on February 4.

“Spent all of yesterday in the ER and today getting surgery so haven’t been able to make an update post,” Swoll posted on Instagram. “Spiral fractured my humorous yesterday and was lucky enough to get into surgery today. Absolutely heartbroken that I couldn’t show all the hard work me, [Mike Brown], [Aldon Baker], and [Joel Perez] were working on truly felt like this year was going to a big one with massive improvements we made but I guess it just wasn’t my time.”

The team announced on Instagram that Swoll underwent successful surgery to repair a broken bone in his arm, sustained in a practice crash on Friday. After missing the division opener, no further timeline has been given for his return.

Swoll made eight starts in the 250 West division last season with a best finish of fifth. In 2021, he scored his first SuperMotocross win in the outdoor Pro Motocross season at High Point Raceway in Mount Morris, Pennsylvania.

Stewart missed Anaheim 2 due to a practice injury. Likewise, the team did not announce a timetable for Stewart’s return.

He showed a lot of speed in the first two rounds before accidents eliminated him from contention in both rounds. He finished 16th at Anaheim 1 and 15th in San Diego, putting him in a points’ deficit that was already going to be difficult to overcome.

Stewart entered the 2023 season with a ton of confidence and believed all he needed was to stack his chips the right way to get this year’s championship.

Husqvarna is now represented by RJ Hampshire in the 250 West division and Christian Craig in 450s.

Hampshire had a rough weekend in Anaheim 2 and finished 11th in the overall standings after scoring a last place result in Race 2 with a bike sidelined by crash damage and a 13th in Race 3 after another fall.

Craig has not yet scored a top-10 on his 450 with a best of 11th at San Diego and Anaheim 2.

The news of these two injuries comes on the heels of the Pro Circuit Kawasaki team losing three of their four 250 riders.

Last week, Pro Circuit Kawasaki announced Seth Hammaker would miss the season opener with a wrist injury. Almost immediately, it was announced Jo Shimoda would also miss the 250 East opener with a shoulder injury.

Chris Blose will serve as a replacement rider in the 250 East division with Carson Mumford scheduled to replace the injured Austin Forkner in the West.