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.”

Cooper Webb, Shane McElrath win Anaheim II Supercross

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Cooper Webb entered the Anaheim II weekend winless in Supercross. He left as a winner and did so in dramatic fashion. Webb was almost perfect in the Triple Crown format. He won the first two Mains and swept the podium with a third-place finish in the final.

Marvin Musquin was the only other driver in 450s to sweep the podium. He did not win any of the Mains, but with a finish of third in the first and second-place results in the last two, he was grabbed the second spot in the overall results.

Eli Tomac won the final Main after finishing fourth in the first two features, which put him third in the overall results.

Trouble continues for last year’s champion. With nine minutes remaining in Main 3, Jason Anderson got into a shoving match with Chad Reed. Knocked out of his rhythm, he finished 17th in that Main and was ninth overall.

Justin Barcia went down hard after being thrown from his bike with five minutes remaining on the clock. He got cross-rutted before being ejected. Barcia was helped from the track by the medical staff.

The 250 class featured three winners in the three Mains. Leading the points by one entering Anaheim II, Colt Nichols was determined to hang onto the red plate. He won the first Main, then finished third and fourth in his next two outings.

Dylan Ferrandis was the runner-up to Nichols in Main 1, but charged back to win Main 2. He finished third in the final Main.

The overall winner of the night, Shane McElrath just got better in every Main. He finished third in the first feature, was second in Main 2 and won the final. That elevated him to second in the points – two behind Nichols.

Nichols holds onto the red plate for the third straight week.

450s

Main 1: Cooper Webb won over Ken Roczen and Marvin Musquin. … Roczen took the hole shot and steadily increased his advantage until Lap 6. Webb was in a battle of his own with Eli Tomac, but still closed the distance and overtook him on the final lap. The two riders went handlebar-to-handlebar on the final lap with Webb grabbing the lead on the run up to the finish line.

Main 2: Webb (cumulative: 2 points) won over Musquin (5) and the opening round winner Justin Barcia (10). Emboldened by his Main 1 win, Webb led checker-to-checker. Running third on Lap 8, Roczen (7) went down after his foot came off the peg. He fell back dramatically, but held onto third in the class points through two mains. Tomas finished fifth in the Main and was fourth in class points. 

Main 3: Tomac (cumulative: 9 points) won over Musquin (7) and Webb (5). Tomac led flag-to-flag, building an advantage of 6.825 seconds at the halfway point. He did not need to keep pushing that hard and allowed Musquin to shave two seconds off his lead, but still had a dominant margin of 4.787 seconds at the end.

250s

Main 1: Colt Nichols won over Dylan Ferrandis and Shane McElrath. … Adam Cianciarulo took a fall after leading three laps and dropped 10 seconds off the pace, but he held on to finish fourth. … Nichols grabbed a lead of more than three seconds and cruised to victory.

Main 2: Ferrandis (cumulative: 3 points) beat McElrath (5) and Nichols (4). … Nichols led the first seven laps of 12 until he made a mistake exiting to whoops and fell. Ferrandis leaped past to take a more than two second lead. Cianciarulo (18) went off track while running fifth with less than a minute on the clock. He dropped to 14th. RJ Hampshire (9) was fourth in class after the first two mains.

Main 3: McElrath (cumulative: 6 points) won over Cianciarulo (20) and Ferrandis (6). Nichols got the hole shot , but Cianciarulo led the first four laps. He could not hold off McElrath, however, who had the overall victory in his sights. By winning the final Main, McElrath took the overall victory. RJ Hampshire rode a steady three races with results of fifth, fourth, and fifth to take fourth overall.

Click here for overall results

Points Leaders

450s
Ken Roczen (63 points)
Eli Tomac (61)
Cooper Webb (57) (1 win)
Justin Barcia (56) (1)
Marvin Musquin (56)

250s
Colt Nichols (70 points) (1 win)
Shane McElrath (68) (1)
Dylan Ferrandis (63)
Adam Cianciarulo (62) (1)
RJ Hampshire (57)

Next race: January 19, Angel Stadium, Anaheim, Calif.

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