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.”

NHRA 50th Gatornationals winners: Crampton, Hight, Butner, Hines

Gatornationals winners: Hines, Butner, Hight, Crampton. Photos and videos courtesy NHRA.
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Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Bo Butner (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) emerged as winners of the 50th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals Sunday at Gainesville (Florida) Raceway.

IN TOP FUEL: Crampton successfully defended his win in last year’s Gatornationals with a 3.769-second, 329.89 mph effort to defeat Clay Millican (3.756 seconds, 324.67 mph) in the final round.

Ironically, not only was Sunday’s triumph Crampton’s first win since last year’s Gators, he also finally got past the first round for the first time in the 2019 season’s first three events, going on to earn his ninth career NHRA national event win.

This is just a big race no matter what year you win it,” Crampton said. “There were not too many easy rounds this year. That goes to tell you how difficult this Top Fuel category is.

I think this win is going to take a while to sink in. I’m so lucky to have a team that puts me in a position to win like this. I’m just focusing to be a dependable driver.”

IN FUNNY CAR: Hight keeps rolling along. Not only has he been the No. 1 qualifier in each of the first three NHRA national events, Sunday’s win was the second of the season and 47th of his career.

Hight (3.867 seconds, 331.61 mph) took the win light after Tim Wilkerson (11.165 seconds, 92.63 mph) lost traction shortly after leaving the starting line.

Qualifying No. 1 at the first three races is really impressive,” Hight said. “It shows that we have a really good handle on this car.

We didn’t get the job done on the last day of the season last year (he failed to win the championship, losing to J.R. Todd) and my team worked really hard because they don’t want to be in that spot again.”

IN PRO STOCK: Butner, the 2017 Pro Stock champion, is off to a great season’s start, with Sunday’s triumph being his second of the young season.

Butner (6.505 seconds, 212.29 mph) defeated Alex Laughlin in the final round. Laughlin’s car broke, essentially giving Butner a free pass to the victory.

Butner’s win was all the more sweeter as his fiancee, Randi Lyn Shipp, won the Stock Eliminator class.

I had no shot of winning rounds today,” Butner said. “Second and third round we didn’t get down the track. The guys never gave up and I made the best run of the weekend in the finals. We were real ready for the final.”

IN PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: The two-wheeled guys kicked off their season with an outstanding final round battle between teammates Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec.

Hines earned the 49th win of his career and first since the final race of the 2017 season with a run of 6.752 seconds at 199.17 mph to defeat Krawiec (6.762 seconds, 198.90 mph).

The motorcycle I had this weekend was phenomenal,” Hines said. “It was tracking straight down the track and it responded to all of the changes.

That made it so much easier to focus on going out there and racing, cutting good lights and not really worrying about what could happen the very next run.”

The next national event will be the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, April 5-7 in Las Vegas.

Here’s Sunday’s results and updated point standings:

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Richie Crampton; 2. Clay Millican; 3.T.J. Zizzo; 4. Doug Kalitta; 5. Steve Torrence; 6. Leah Pritchett; 7. Brittany Force; 8. Jordan Vandergriff; 9. Terry McMillen; 10. Dom Lagana; 11. Mike Salinas; 12. Austin Prock; 13. Antron Brown; 14. Scott Palmer; 15. Pat Dakin; 16. Chris Karamesines.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight; 2. Tim Wilkerson; 3. John Force; 4. Jack Beckman; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. Cruz Pedregon; 7. Matt Hagan; 8. Ron Capps; 9. Jonnie Lindberg; 10. Shawn Langdon; 11. Bob Tasca III; 12. Terry Haddock; 13. J.R. Todd; 14. Dave Richards; 15. John Smith; 16. Jim Campbell.

PRO STOCK: 1. Bo Butner; 2. Alex Laughlin; 3. Kenny Delco; 4. Rodger Brogdon; 5. Greg Anderson; 6. Shane Tucker; 7. Chris McGaha; 8. Deric Kramer; 9. Jeg Coughlin; 10. Jason Line; 11. Fernando Cuadra; 12. Matt Hartford; 13. Alan Prusiensky; 14. Wally Stroupe; 15. Erica Enders; 16. Val Smeland.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines; 2. Eddie Krawiec; 3. Hector Arana Jr; 4. Joey Gladstone; 5. Ryan Oehler; 6. Jerry Savoie; 7. Jim Underdahl; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Angie Smith; 10. Cory Reed; 11. Angelle Sampey; 12. Karen Stoffer; 13. Kelly Clontz; 14. Scotty Pollacheck; 15. Hector Arana; 16. Melissa Surber.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Richie Crampton, 3.769 seconds, 323.89 mphdef. Clay Millican, 3.756 seconds, 324.67 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.867, 331.61def. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 11.165, 92.63.

PRO STOCK: Bo Butner, Chevy Camaro, 6.505, 212.29def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, Broke.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.752, 199.17def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.762, 198.90.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — T.J. Zizzo, 4.467, 287.84 def. Scott Palmer, 7.510, 92.54; Clay Millican, 3.713, 325.61 def. Austin Prock, 3.996, 311.63; Richie Crampton, 3.783, 318.77 def. Antron Brown, 4.376, 220.40; Brittany Force, 3.712, 304.12 def. Chris Karamesines, 8.179, 68.29; Jordan Vandergriff, 3.721, 322.34 def. Mike Salinas, 3.986, 275.28; Steve Torrence, 3.680, 327.27 def. Dom Lagana, 3.845, 264.18; Leah Pritchett, 3.724, 327.59 def. Pat Dakin, 7.999, 80.28; Doug Kalitta, 3.749, 325.30 def. Terry McMillen, 3.749, 325.22; QUARTERFINALS — Crampton, 3.785, 319.37 def. Pritchett, 3.739, 328.78; Millican, 3.701, 325.69 def. Vandergriff, 10.914, 71.66; Zizzo, 3.764, 325.92 def. Force, 3.751, 326.95; Kalitta, 3.703, 327.51 def. Torrence, 3.708, 329.91; SEMIFINALS — Crampton, 3.734, 326.56 def. Zizzo, 3.844, 297.42; Millican, 3.909, 313.73 def. Kalitta, 4.920, 145.97; FINAL — Crampton, 3.769, 323.89 def. Millican, 3.756, 324.67.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 4.759, 231.48 def. Dave Richards, Mustang, 5.240, 213.43; John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.892, 326.63 def. Jim Campbell, Dodge Charger, 8.295, 78.64; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.933, 326.56 def. John Smith, Charger, 5.306, 150.05; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.869, 331.94 def. Terry Haddock, Mustang, 4.234, 284.03; Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.941, 322.58 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Mustang, 3.950, 324.44; Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.905, 326.79 def. J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 4.353, 255.53; Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 3.924, 325.22 def. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.966, 323.27; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.910, 324.59 def. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.969, 316.90; QUARTERFINALS — Wilkerson, 3.872, 329.50 def. Pedregon, 8.110, 84.77; Hight, 3.870, 330.88 def. Capps, 10.137, 77.38; Force, 4.471, 185.95 def. Hagan, 9.028, 77.04; Beckman, 3.898, 329.67 def. Johnson Jr., 3.892, 327.03; SEMIFINALS — Wilkerson, 3.896, 329.02 def. Beckman, 4.211, 267.27; Hight, 3.852, 331.20 def. Force, 3.942, 324.12; FINAL — Hight, 3.867, 331.61 def. Wilkerson, 11.165, 92.63.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, 6.566, 210.97 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.751, 173.63; Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.512, 210.83 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.527, 212.39; Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.533, 210.34 def. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.516, 212.53; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.532, 212.46 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.549, 211.63; Shane Tucker, Camaro, 6.593, 209.26 def. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.571, 211.13; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.504, 212.69 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 6.625, 208.07; Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.566, 211.23 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.505, 212.33 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, 12.777, 67.47; QUARTERFINALS — Brogdon, 6.513, 211.39 def. McGaha, 7.852, 127.58; Delco, 6.555, 210.01 def. Tucker, 6.610, 209.23; Butner, 6.552, 211.76 def. Kramer, 20.651, 37.89; Laughlin, 6.507, 211.00 def. Anderson, 6.506, 213.16; SEMIFINALS — Butner, 8.103, 115.58 def. Brogdon, Foul – Red Light; Laughlin, 6.531, 210.57 def. Delco, 6.550, 210.41; FINAL — Butner, 6.505, 212.29 def. Laughlin, Broke.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.916, 187.89 def. Hector Arana, 7.095, 196.93; Joey Gladstone, 6.873, 194.46 def. Angelle Sampey, Harley-Davidson, 6.884, 195.39; Ryan Oehler, Buell, 6.853, 196.36 def. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.901, 194.04; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.781, 198.67 def. Cory Reed, Foul – Red Light; Hector Arana Jr, 6.815, 197.62 def. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 6.916, 192.19; Matt Smith, 6.795, 197.36 def. Angie Smith, 6.850, 196.79; Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.803, 198.17 def. Scotty Pollacheck, 6.964, 192.41; Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, Broke def. Melissa Surber, Buell, Foul – Red Light; QUARTERFINALS — Arana Jr, 6.797, 197.08 def. Oehler, 6.886, 198.44; Krawiec, 6.920, 197.68 def. Underdahl, 7.184, 153.49; Gladstone, 6.811, 194.74 def. M. Smith, Broke; Hines, 6.756, 199.14 def. Savoie, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Krawiec, 6.819, 197.08 def. Gladstone, 6.850, 194.72; Hines, 6.758, 199.08 def. Arana Jr, Foul – Red Light; FINAL — Hines, 6.752, 199.17 def. Krawiec, 6.762, 198.90.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1.Doug Kalitta, 246; 2.Leah Pritchett, 204; 3.Steve Torrence, 197; 4.(tie) Richie Crampton, 178; Billy Torrence, 178; 6.Terry McMillen, 166; 7.Mike Salinas, 161; 8.Clay Millican, 157; 9.Antron Brown, 150; 10.Austin Prock, 138.

FUNNY CAR: 1.Robert Hight, 330; 2.Jack Beckman, 225; 3.Matt Hagan, 215; 4.John Force, 200; 5.Tommy Johnson Jr., 191; 6.Tim Wilkerson, 165; 7.Bob Tasca III, 163; 8.J.R. Todd, 159; 9.Ron Capps, 146; 10.Shawn Langdon, 143.

PRO STOCK: 1.Bo Butner, 301; 2.Alex Laughlin, 229; 3.Jason Line, 189; 4.Erica Enders, 186; 5.Matt Hartford, 185; 6.Rodger Brogdon, 184; 7.Jeg Coughlin, 180; 8.Deric Kramer, 166; 9.Kenny Delco, 141; 10.Chris McGaha, 137.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.Andrew Hines, 124; 2.Eddie Krawiec, 106; 3.Hector Arana Jr, 76; 4.Joey Gladstone, 72; 5. Matt Smith, 63; 6.Ryan Oehler, 54; 7.(tie) Jerry Savoie, 53; Jim Underdahl, 53; 9.Angelle Sampey, 35; 10.(tie) Hector Arana, 32; Karen Stoffer, 32; Melissa Surber, 32.

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