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.”

Three-time F1 champion Niki Lauda dies at 70

AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File
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BERLIN (AP) Three-time Formula One world champion Niki Lauda, who won two of his titles after a horrific crash that left him with serious burns and went on to become a prominent figure in the aviation industry, has died. He was 70.

The Austria Press Agency reported that Lauda’s family said in a statement he “passed away peacefully” on Monday. Walter Klepetko, a doctor who performed a lung transplant on Lauda last year, said Tuesday: “Niki Lauda has died. I have to confirm that.”

Lauda won the F1 drivers’ championship in 1975 and 1977 with Ferrari and again in 1984 with McLaren.

In 1976, he was badly burned when he crashed during the German Grand Prix but made an astonishingly fast return to racing just six weeks later.

Lauda remained closely involved with the Formula One circuit after retiring as a driver in 1985, and in recent years served as the non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team.

Born on Feb. 22, 1949 into a wealthy Vienna industrial family, Nikolaus Andreas Lauda was expected to follow his father’s footsteps into the paper-manufacturing industry, but instead concentrated his business talents and determination on his dreams of becoming a racing driver.

Lauda financed his early career with the help of a string of loans, working his way through the ranks of Formula 3 and Formula 2. He made his Formula 1 debut for the March team at the 1971 Austrian Grand Prix and picked up his first points in 1973 with a fifth-place finish for BRM in Belgium.

Lauda joined Ferrari in 1974, winning a Grand Prix for the first time that year in Spain and his first drivers’ title with five victories the following season.

Facing tough competition from McLaren’s James Hunt, he appeared on course to defend his title in 1976 when he crashed at the Nuerburgring during the German Grand Prix. Several drivers stopped to help pull him from the burning car, but the accident would scar him for life. The baseball cap Lauda almost always wore in public became a personal trademark.

“The main damage, I think to myself, was lung damage from inhaling all the flames and fumes while I was sitting in the car for about 50 seconds,” he recalled nearly a decade later. “It was something like 800 degrees.”

Lauda fell into a coma for a time. He said that “for three or four days it was touch and go.”

“Then my lungs recovered and I got my skin grafts done, then basically there was nothing left,” he added. “I was really lucky in a way that I didn’t do any (other) damage to myself. So the real question was then will I be able to drive again, because certainly it was not easy to come back after a race like that.”

Lauda made his comeback just six weeks after the crash, finishing fourth at Monza after overcoming his initial fears.

He recalled “shaking with fear” as he changed into second gear on the first day of practice and thinking, “I can’t drive.”

The next day, Lauda said he “started very slowly trying to get all the feelings back, especially the confidence that I’m capable of driving these cars again.” The result, he said, boosted his confidence and after four or five races “I had basically overcome the problem of having an accident and everything went back to normal.”

He won his second championship in 1977 before switching to Brabham and then retiring in 1979 to concentrate on setting up his airline, Lauda Air, declaring that he “didn’t want to drive around in circles anymore.”

Lauda came out of retirement in 1982 after a big-money offer from McLaren, reportedly about $3 million a year.

He finished fifth his first year back and 10th in 1983, but came back to win five races and edge out teammate Alain Prost for his third title in 1984. He retired for good the following year, saying he needed more time to devote to his airline business.

Initially a charter airline, Lauda Air expanded in the 1980s to offer flights to Asia and Australia. In May 1991, a Lauda Air Boeing 767 crashed in Thailand after one of its engine thrust reversers accidentally deployed during a climb, killing all 213 passengers and 10 crew.

Lauda occasionally took the controls of the airline’s jets himself over the years. In 1997, longtime rival Austrian Airlines took a minority stake and in 2000, with the company making losses, he resigned as board chairman after an external audit criticized a lack of internal financial control over business conducted in foreign currency. Austrian Airlines later took full control.

Lauda founded a new airline, Niki, in 2003. Germany’s Air Berlin took a minority stake and later full control of that airline, which Lauda bought back in early 2018 after it fell victim to its parent’s financial woes.

He partnered with budget carrier Ryanair on Niki’s successor, LaudaMotion.

On the Formula One circuit, Lauda later formed a close bond with Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, who joined the team in 2013. He often backed Hamilton in public and provided advice and counsel to the British driver.

Lauda also intervened as a Mercedes mediator when Hamilton and his former Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg feuded, argued and traded barbs as they fought for the title between 2014-16

Lauda twice underwent kidney transplants, receiving an organ donated by his brother in 1997 and, when that stopped functioning well, a kidney donated by his girlfriend in 2005.

In August 2018, he underwent a lung transplant that the Vienna General Hospital said was made necessary by a “serious lung illness.” It didn’t give details.

Lauda is survived by his second wife, Birgit, and their twin children Max and Mia. He had two adult sons, Lukas and Mathias, from his first marriage.