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


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.”

Strong rebounds for Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi amid some disappointments in the Indy 500


INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou had not turned a wheel wrong the entire Month of May at the Indy 500 until Rinus VeeKay turned a wheel into the Chip Ganassi Racing pole-sitter leaving pit road on Lap 94.

“There is nothing I could have done there,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s OK, when it is my fault or the team’s fault because everybody makes mistakes. But when there is nothing, you could have done differently there, it feels bad and feels bad for the team.”

Marcus Ericsson was a master at utilizing the “Tail of the Dragon” move that breaks the draft of the car behind him in the closing laps to win last year’s Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, however, the last of three red flags in the final 16 laps of the race had the popular driver from Sweden breathing fire after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden beat him at his own game on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the two disappointments, team owner Chip Ganassi was seen on pit road fist-bumping a member on his four-car team in this year’s Indianapolis 500 after his drivers finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh in the tightly contested race.

Those are pretty good results, but at the Indianapolis 500, there is just one winner and 32 losers.

“There is only one winner, but it was a hell of a show,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Chip Ganassi Racing consultant Dario Franchitti told NBC Sports. “Alex was very fast, and he got absolutely caught out in somebody else’s wreck. There was nothing he could have done, but he and the 10 car, great recovery.

“Great recovery by all four cars because at half distance, we were not looking very good.”

After 92 laps, the first caution flew for Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing hitting the Turn 1 wall.

During pit stops on Lap 94, Palou had left his stall when the second-place car driven by VeeKay ran into him, putting Palou’s Honda into the wall. The car sustained a damaged front wing, but the Chip Ganassi crew was able to get him back in the race on the lead lap but in 28th position.

Palou ultimately would fight his way to a fourth-place finish in a race the popular Spaniard could have won. His displeasure with VeeKay, whom he sarcastically called “a legend” on his team radio after the incident, was evident.

“The benefit of being on pole is you can drive straight and avoid crashes, and he was able to crash us on the side on pit lane, which is pretty tough to do, but he managed it,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Hopefully next year we are not beside him. Hopefully, next year we have a little better luck.”

Palou started on the pole and led 36 laps, just three fewer than race leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.

“We started really well, was managing the fuel as we wanted, our car was pretty good,” Palou said. “Our car wasn’t great, we dropped to P4 or P5, but we still had some good stuff.

“On the pit stop, the 21 (VeeKay) managed to clip us. Nothing we could have done there. It was not my team’s fault or my fault.

“We had to drop to the end. I’m happy we made it back to P4. We needed 50 more laps to make it happen, but it could have been a lot worse after that contact.

“I learned a lot, running up front at the beginning and in mid-pack and then the back. I learned a lot.

“It feels amazing when you win it and not so good when things go wrong. We were a bit lucky with so many restarts at the end to make it back to P4 so I’m happy with that.”

Palou said the front wing had to be changed and the toe-in was a bit off, but he still had a fast car.

In fact, his Honda was the best car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month. His pole-winning four lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a record for this fabled race.

Palou looked good throughout the race, before he had to scratch and claw and race his way back to the top-five after he restarted 28th.

In the Indianapolis 500, however, the best car doesn’t always win.

“It’s two years in a row that we were leading the race at the beginning and had to drop to last,” Palou said. “Maybe next year, we will start in the middle of the field and go on to win the race.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose. It’s better to let that pass someday.”

Palou said the wild racing at the end was because the downforce package used in Sunday’s race means the drivers have to be aggressive. The front two cars can battle for the victory, but cars back in fourth or fifth place can’t help determine the outcome of the race.

That is when the “Tail of the Dragon” comes into the play.

Franchitti helped celebrate Ericsson’s win in 2022 with his “Tail of the Dragon” zigzag move – something he never had to do in any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories because they all finished under caution.

In 2023, however, IndyCar Race Control wants to make every attempt to finish the race under green, without going past the scheduled distance like NASCAR’s overtime rule.

Instead of extra laps, they stop the race with a red flag, to create a potential green-flag finish condition.

“You do what you have to do to win within the rules, and it’s within the rules, so you do it,” Franchitti said. “The race is 200 laps and there is a balance.

“Marcus did a great job on that restart and so did Josef. It was just the timing of who was where and that was it.

“If you knew it was going to go red, you would have hung back on the lap before.

“Brilliant job by the whole Ganassi organization because it wasn’t looking very good at half-distance.

“Full marks to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske.”

Franchitti is highly impressed by how well Ericsson works with CGR engineer Brad Goldberg and how close this combination came to winning the Indianapolis 500 two-years-in-a-row.

It would have been the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

“Oh, he’s a badass,” Franchitti said Ericsson. “He proved it last year. He is so calm all day. What more do you need? As a driver, he’s fast and so calm.”

Ericsson is typically in good spirits and jovial.

He was stern and direct on pit road after the race.

“I did everything right, I did an awesome restart, caught Josef off-guard and pulled away,” Ericsson said on pit lane. “It’s hard to pull away a full lap and he got me back.

“I’m mostly disappointed with the way he ended. I don’t think it was fair and safe to do that restart straight out of the pits on cold tires for everyone.

“To me, it was not a good way to end that race.

“Congrats to Josef. He didn’t do anything wrong. He is a worthy champion, but it shouldn’t have ended like that.”

Palou also didn’t understand the last restart, which was a one-start showdown.

“I know that we want to finish under green,” Palou said. “Maybe the last restart I did, I didn’t understand. It didn’t benefit the CGR team.

“I’m not very supportive of the last one, but anyway.”

Dixon called the red flags “a bit sketchy.”

“The Red Flags have become a theme to the end of the race, but sometimes they can catch you out,” Dixon said. “I know Marcus is frustrated with it.

“All we ask for is consistency. I think they will do better next time.

“It’s a tough race. People will do anything they can to win it and with how these reds fall, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is when they throw a Red or don’t throw a Red dictates how the race will end.

“It’s a bloody hard race to win. Congrats to Josef Newgarden and to Team Penske.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500