Alex Zanardi’s comeback through the eyes of longtime friends and rivals

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Naturally, Alex Zanardi has few, if any, memories that he cares to recall about the Sept. 15, 2001 crash at Lausitz, Germany, that robbed him of his legs.

But he does have some thoughts on the CART race that permanently altered his life and inadvertently would make him the most inspiring story of today’s Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona nearly two decades later.

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“That’s an episode of my life which for sure was difficult to overcome, no doubt about it,” Zanardi, who will pilot a BMW M8 with hand controls during the 24-hour race at Daytona International Speedway, said Friday about the crash. “But once I managed to solve that problem, for sure that thing happening in my life also gave me the possibility to develop instruments that I would have never developed had it not happened, and these instruments are quite valuable, because they’re not made to overcome a technical problem in making your car go slightly faster, but they remind me every day that life is a wonderful opportunity, no matter what you have.

“Now if you asked me Alex, would you like to go back in time and fix everything, I’d probably say yes, especially if I could live again the last 17 years because it what would be a lot of fun trying to do different things had what happened not had happened, but if you would just say, ‘Alex, would you like to change the outcome of that day and … find yourself today with legs but without knowing how happy or sad you would be,’ having lived the last 17 years in a different condition in comparison to the one you have now, I frankly don’t know whether I would take that change. Because I would also take the chance to wake up not as happy, not as comfortable in my life as I am.”

That the colorful Italian’s perspective somehow turns the devastating wreck into an overwhelming positive is no surprise. In the years since the accident, Zanardi has become a gold medal-winning Paralympian who is planning his run at a third straight Games.

But there are a few others he will be racing against this weekend with vivid viewpoints from that dark day in Germany, which came on the heels of an already difficult week because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

When Alexander Tagliani’s Reynard-Ford plowed full speed into Zanardi’s Reynad-Honda (which was sitting helplessly after a spin), Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Christian Fittipaldi and Townsend Bell also were on the track in the CART Series (which later became Champ Car and merged with IndyCar)

“That weekend was terrible,” Castroneves said on a recent NASCAR on NBC Podcast episode. “A lot of people worried about their families here in the U.S. And then the accident happened.”

Castroneves originally was worried the crash had involved his fellow Brazilian Tony Kanaan, a teammate of Zanardi’s at Mo Nunn Racing. “So I kinda really look who had the accident and when I saw the front of the car, basically half of the car was gone. And I kind of not understood, and saw a lot of debris, which didn’t quite look like a piece of the race car. Well at the time, I didn’t know what it was, but it was part of his body, however that time I did not realize what it was. And I just tried to block it because I didn’t want to look.”

Fittipaldi recalls the voice of his normally calm spotter going up several octaves after the incident.

“What he saw upstairs was something never ever seen before,” said Fittipaldi, who rolled past the postcrash scene a few minutes later. “Probably the whole safety crew was on top of Zanardi’s car. And I remember seeing some blood.”

The most explicit images of the crash for Dixon came when he saw a newspaper the next day at the airport.

“Just how graphic the picture was of like shoes and stuff going through the air and the blood,” he said. “I was surprised they could put that on the front page. That’s the thing I remember the most.”

For Bell, it already would be a memorable weekend because the race marked his IndyCar debut, which he described as “a baptism by fire for a young driver.” The NBC Sports analyst, who is doubling behind the wheel this weekend at Daytona, hadn’t seen Zanardi since the drivers meeting in September 2001 until the Roar before the Rolex test session a few weeks ago.

“The fact that he’s here 18 years later, and he’s here after having won in so many other ways in his life, in motorsports, in wheelchair racing, is just remarkable,” Bell said. “This event will potentially have a great impact on so many of us because he’s here. And he’s going to be here competitively and with the same burning passion that he had as an IndyCar driver. That’s a really powerful thing to be a part of, and I find it hugely inspiring.”

Zanardi already was a compelling figure in racing before the crash. From his 1996 rookie season, which concluded with a breathtaking winning pass on Bryan Herta through the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca, Zanardi’s aggressive style got him sideways with many rivals but earned legions of American fans.

He won back-to-back championships with Chip Ganassi Racing before leaving for an ill-fated season with Williams in Formula One. The crash happened during his first season after returning to CART.

Those who were in Germany hardly expected to race against him again at Daytona.

“I couldn’t be more happy, to be honest,” said Castroneves, who grew to know Zanardi well through their shared attorney, Alan Miller. “ ‘Can’t’ is not in his vocabulary. It does not exist. He’s such an inspiration for so many people. When he was racing, he was already the champion, the guy making moves at The Corkscrew passing Herta on the last lap.

“The guy, it’s amazing. That’s faith, you know. That’s faith and destiny with his family and his wife and kid. He’s still able to inspire so many people and still see his son grow up, which is great.”

Once archrivals in F3000, Fittipaldi and Zanardi shared a lighthearted moment when they entered the Daytona garage together for the test.

“We used to hate each other,” Fittipaldi said with a laugh. “Yeah, but that’s life. I’m happy that he’s here. I’m happy that he’s been successful since when that happened. The thing I’m the happiest is that he took a positive approach to everything.

“I imagine it must be extremely hard for him, but it could have been a million times worse if he just sat in bed or sat in his room and said, ‘Screw the rest of my life, I’m not going to do anything, I’m just going to stay here until the day comes.’ He is definitely an example because he made an awful situation something positive to serve as an example for a bunch of different people, and yet, sometimes we complain when things don’t happen our way or put on 2 pounds. The guy doesn’t have any legs, and he’s running at a competitive pace. So that’s definitely an example. A big role model, not only for the guys who are coming up through the ranks, but also for the old guys as a life example.”

Dixon’s first experience with seeing Zanardi was when he was a guest of Tasman Motorsports at the Vancouver race on Aug. 31, 1997. Zanardi won the pole position, had a problem in the race and drove from the rear to a fourth-place finish.

“I remember watching his Target car and going, ‘Holy shit,’” said Dixon, who joined Ganassi a few years later. “It almost looked like everyone was pulling out of his way. It was so bizarre. Then we went to Laguna Seca after that. From that day was just seeing how dominant that team was.

“They were a little hard-nosed, kind of aggressive and Alex himself is extremely exciting to watch. There was nobody quite like him. He’s definitely an extremely special individual. … You just don’t see it too often from that kind of adversity, a lot of people wouldn’t rebound like that. They’d go the other way. But then take it to the lengths he did with Olympics and using his body in other ways and going full circle back into the racing scene. There’s lots of pretty cool things he’s been able to achieve but also inspire communities around the world.

“He’s just a machine, man.”

Zanardi prefers to look at himself as just “a very lucky guy because evidently that’s the way I am as far as my character.

“When I woke up (after the crash), instead of asking, ‘Why did that happen to me?’ or ‘Why did I lose my legs’ I just asked myself, ‘How the hell am I going to do all the things that I have to do with no legs?’

“One thing after the other, I ended up where I wanted to be.”

SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”