Double Indycar champion, Formula 1 racer and now a Paralympic medal-winner – two golds and a silver: is there anything Alex Zanardi cannot do?
He conquered the hand-cycling course at Brands Hatch at the age of 45, and now he is eyeing a remarkable return to his first sport with a shot at the Indianapolis 500 in 2013.
When Zanardi lost his legs in September 2001 in a horrific Champ Car crash at the Lausitzring in Germany, it was amazing he survived. Indycar’s top doctors Terry Trammell and Steve Olvey were first on the scene, around 20 seconds after the impact. Trammell – who has treated Rick Mears, Nelson Piquet and so many more for their injuries – fell over on his rush to the wreckage.
“I thought it was oil I slipped on,” he said. “It wasn’t. It was Alex’s blood.”
“You can look at it two ways,” said Zanardi. “I could have, maybe should have, died that day. But I can still hold my son. And that is all that matters.”
Olvey and Trammell quickly decided to by-pass the circuit’s medical centre and flew Zanardi straight to hospital in Berlin. He had lost 75 per cent of his blood.
During that 40-minute flight, his heart stopped seven times and he received the Last Rites. NASA has calculated that with such a severe amount of blood loss – he had less than a litre left when he reached hospital – he should not have survived.
Four wins in the World Touring Car Championship and three Paralympic medals later, Zanardi continues to defy the odds. Given what he’s achieved already, an Indy 500 start must be an achievable goal.
“You know me well enough to know I cannot sit around for four years waiting for the Rio 2016 Olympics,” Zanardi said. “And anyway, I will be 49 by then.”
Just two years after his accident, Zanardi made an emotional return to Lausitz to drive a Champ Car again, at competitive speeds.
“Because of the CART/Indy Racing League split I never did the Indy 500, and I would love to,” he said. “I know I can do it; I was quick at Lausitz with prosthetic legs. Indy is not easy to drive, but it’s easier than Lausitz.
“Jimmy Vasser offered me a car for the 500 if I won gold. I’ve done my bit! I want to reunite the ‘Dream Team’ from the 1990s: me, Chip [team boss Ganassi], Jimmy and [engineer] Mo Nunn.”
Ganassi was one of many in the motor racing world to laud his former champion driver in the wake of his Paralympics performances: “Nothing that Alex does surprises me anymore. He’s a tremendous person and a true racer at heart. Whether it’s in Indycars or on hand-bikes, he has always been a terrific competitor.”
“I laugh,” said Zanardi, “at the thought of my grand-children sitting on my legs – what’s left of them anyway – and saying Granddad went to London 2012 and won Paralympic gold medals.
“Can you imagine my face on the Borg-Warner Trophy as well? No, neither can I. But I will give it my best shot.” Andy Hallbery