How Alex Zanardi makes beautiful music behind the wheel


To explain how he controls a BMW M8 at speeds above 180 mph by using two hands and no foot pedals, Alex Zanardi cites another virtuoso with his hands.

Imagine Jimi Hendrix running through the chord progressions of “Purple Haze” or “Little Wing”, and you will have a decent idea of the dexterity needed to record elite-level laps around Daytona International Speedway by Zanardi, who lost his legs in a 2001 crash.

With one qualifier.

“I’m not that talented,” the Italian jokes when Hendrix is referenced. “But they are the type of exercises that remind me of what a guitarist has to do. To work independently with his finger over different chords and buttons.

“It’s difficult. Not impossible but difficult.”

ROLEX 24 COVERAGE: Full announcer lineup, NBCSN/NBC Sports App schedule

“Not impossible” could be the mantra of Zanardi’s extraordinary life, which could be viewed as adding another remarkable chapter with this weekend’s Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona.

The veteran of CART ChampCar (where he won consecutive championships in 1997-98) and Formula One became a world-class athlete in other sports after the Sept. 15, 2001 wreck in Lausitz, Germany that ended the first phase of his auto racing career.

Competing in Paralympic handbike, Zanardi, 52, won gold medals at the 2012 London Games and won another gold at the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Games. He also finished the 2014 Ironman World Championships triathlon.

The No. 24 BMW waits in the pits during testing at Daytona International Speedway (LAT Images/Michael L. Levitt).

But he has returned to motorsports the past few years, and the Rolex 24 will be his most high-profile test yet.

After deciding to run the endurance race a little more than a year ago, Zanardi spent a few days with BMW engineers in Munich, Germany, to develop a setup that would optimize his driving and driver changes during the race with teammates John Edwards and Jesse Krohn.

Zanardi, who has been proactive in designing and developing implements to overcome the challenges of his lower body, brought ideas for his specially modified steering wheel. Within a month of the initial meeting, the setup was ready to be mounted and fitted.

“Everything basically felt right, so damn right,” he said. “I was very, very impressed by the amazing job they did in Munich in solving every concept I dedicated to develop this and transform all that into reality. Everything was installed.”

He has had a few warmups to test the equipment ahead of Daytona, including a DTM Championship race where he was “very competitive.” His endurance was measured in another two-day test at an Italian circuit.

“It was very demanding from a physical point of view,” Zanardi said. “They were concerned I wouldn’t survive more than half a day because that is a very physical car, very demanding car like an Indy car, and I basically wore the car out. They said, ‘We cannot stop, we don’t have any more mileage in the engine.’

“I did almost like 800 miles in two days. That was a lot, and I really enjoyed myself. I had a blast. I was a little sore but don’t tell them!”

Alex Zanardi still is racing 17 years after both his legs were severed in a crash. The Italian is behind the wheel of a BMW that has been customized to race without his prosthetic legs. (AP Photo/Mark Long).

Zanardi struggled while racing touring cars with prosthetic legs from 2005-09. Though they granted more freedom to move his hands over the wheel, he was uncomfortable with the bulkiness and weight of the prosthetics.

It wore him down too much during a 24-hour race in 2015 on the Spa circuit in Belgium, and the hand controls will allow him to stay much fresher at Daytona, where he will drive in stints that last three hours.

“I don’t feel any weaker over the distance of a single lap,” Zanardi said of the hand controls. “I can squeeze every ounce of performance from the race car. I proved that. On top of everything, the advantage I will have is indescribable. In the past, I wasn’t able to keep up with same the quantity of driving as teammates and wasn’t able to help as much as I wanted.

“To do a double stint in the middle of the night and then be completely trashed. I had to rest, and that was difficult. Here, I’m planning to shout, ‘Present!’ whenever they say we need you back in the car.”

Zanardi controls acceleration and shifting through buttons and levers and uses a trigger on the side for braking. It gets trickiest when the car is sliding.

“Mainly when you get sideways above a certain angle, and you have to play with the steering wheel more than you had planned approaching the turn,” he said. “The risk is that by turning the wheel too rapidly, you lose grip on the throttle mechanism. You use more oversteer because of the sharp reducement of power. You could generate more oversteer closing top too rapidly. When the car gets sideways a little, you countersteer and tease a little with the throttle.

“You lose grip on the throttle and then have to hope you don’t get in that situation. But I’ve been in that situation, and I’m talking to you.”

He also can control fuel mapping in the engine while driving and shifting. “This is where I say I’m a little like Hendrix,” he said. “Sometimes I make small mistakes, but the good thing is that I’m safe. This is not dangerous neither for myself or other drivers. Maybe sometimes I’m a little late executing commands from the pit. Other than that, everything works best it can be.”

MORE: Alex Zanardi’s love affair with America

His teammates can attest it isn’t easy. Edwards tried driving with Zanardi’s steering wheel during a Daytona test and nearly looped it because he was unaccustomed to the brake bias.

“My heart rate took the rest of the end lap to come back down and be able to do a debrief,” Edwards said. “I didn’t know how I was going to explain it if I lost the car. Especially if I lost it and touched the wall because I was just trying to screw around with the hand brake.

“To be as quick in a race car having changed the whole way he drives is totally unbelievable. When that stuff isn’t second nature and you’re in the middle of your life, to retrain your body and get back to a similar level is something I don’t think many people can achieve.”

Krohn helped develop the hand controls in testing and said he was faster using his hands instead of the footbrake because Zanardi’s system is so efficient.

“What he can do on track and off track, he doesn’t have a disability,” Krohn said. “Just his mindset is driven to work with what he has. He’s been able to really drive on that.”

Edwards said the only challenge that might arise is if Zanardi’s detachable wheel gets stuck during a driver change (Edwards and Krohn wouldn’t have to rely on the hand controls, but the pedal functionality could be more difficult).

Swift driver changes have gone well in practice. Zanardi, who shares a seat insert with Krohn, is able to swap out his ride in 14 seconds, which is about half the original time.

“It looks like a dance; quite artistical,” Zanardi joked about the change, which he can do much quicker without prosthetics. “I’m actually faster than able-bodied drivers are to get in and out of the car, which compensates a little bit for the extra time we waste in changing the steering wheel.”

Though his goal is “to leave the circuit with a smile on my face,” Zanardi, Krohn and Edwards all believe they have the car and talent to win their class.

Such an achievement would be regarded as sublimely as any riff that Hendrix ever dreamed, but it would just be another brilliant piece for Zanardi in the daily demands of songwriting his unique life.

“These days, every day, I have to adapt,” he said. “It’s my life. Every time I come to a different step, different door, different obstacle, I have to figure a way to go around that problem.

“For sure, when you go through types of problems, you develop new instruments which may enable you to do things you didn’t think possible.”

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
Joe Portlock - Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images

Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”