by John Zimmermann
When 30-year-old Alessandro Zanardi arrived in America in late 1995 to test for Target Chip Ganassi Racing's IndyCar team he was a man, he said, with "a briefcase full of dreams and not much else." Although the young Italian had known only success as he rocketed through the European training categories, upon reaching Formula 1 his career had stalled. From 25 starts he scored a single point, and when Team Lotus closed its doors at the end of 1994, he was out of a job.
Ganassi's signing of Zanardi opened one of IndyCar racing's most illustrious chapters. From 51 starts in Target Reynard-Hondas over the next three seasons the man we came to call Alex won 15 races, took eight seconds and five thirds, earning Rookie of the Year honors in 1996 and the championship the next two years. Zanardi made a similar impact with his spirit and charisma. The intensity of his performances engaged racing fans nationwide and ensured his induction to this hall, but his response to tragedy gained him even wider fame.
Returning to IndyCar in 2001 after a brief stint with the Williams F1 team, he reunited with former TCGR engineer Mo Nunn. When the series arrived for a race at Germany's new Lausitzring four days after 9/11, it looked like the team was starting to bloom. Zanardi ran at the front and led 20 laps. Speeding away from his final pit stop, however, he lost control and slithered up the banking. One car narrowly missed him, but the second struck Zanardi's Reynard at full speed just behind the front wheels, tearing it in two and ripping off his legs above the knees.
After CART doctors Steve Olvey and Terry Trammell saved his life, he was helicoptered to Berlin for further treatment. Upon repeating as CART champion four years earlier Zanardi had said, "I think I've learned that all you have to do is never give up," and that attitude would sustain his recovery.
In 2002, CART honored him with the privilege of waving the checkered flag in Toronto, and the next year he was driving again. Aided by hand controls he completed those final 13 laps at the track where he'd nearly died two years earlier, lapping quickly enough to have qualified fifth for that weekend's race. It persuaded him to return to competition. Wearing prostheses he designed himself, he raced for BMW in the World Touring Car Championship for six seasons, winning four times.
During the same period he took up handcycling, and once again was an immediate front-runner, placing fourth in class at the 2007 New York City Marathon after just four weeks training. Four years later he won New York, and last year, at 45, took two gold medals at the Paralympic Games in London. In so doing, he was named the International Paralympic Committee's Male Athlete of the Month.
Alex Zanardi continues to show us all what it means to be a racer.