Moments later Olvey and Trammel emerged from the center and saw that the chopper had not left. The Germans were going by the numbers, methodically preparing to leave. The doctors gasped. "They've got to go!" screamed Trammel. It had been 19 minutes since the crash. Olvey figured that Zanardi already had less man an even chance to live. Time was growing thinner than his blood. In a panic Olvey ran over and grabbed the pilot by his shirt and screamed at him to leave: "Fast! Now!" The startled pilot did not understand. Olvey, waving his arms wildly, bellowed out the only German word of urgency he could recall: "Schnell! Schnell!
Seconds later the chopper lifted from the infield, rising in a gust of wind for Berlin.
Perhaps no event more fully captures Alex Zanardi or demarcates his place in Champ car racing than the final event of his rookie season, at Laguna Seca Raceway near Monterey, Calif. It was Sept. 7, 1996, and Zanardi, having already geared through two victories in the 16-race series, was assured of being named the year's leading rookie. With less than one lap to go at Laguna, as Zanardi tooled along in second place on that hilly, twisting road course, his team owner, Chip Ganassi, felt that he had it all: Not only had Zanardi, Ganassi's personal discovery, been the most dominant driver of the last half of the season, but also his Target-Ganassi teammate and good friend, Jimmy Vasser, was racing fourth and on his way to winning the overall CART championship.
"We'd given it our best shot all day, and we were coming up second," Ganassi recalls, "but it had been a hell of a race, and Alex was rookie of the year, and Vasser was winning the championship!"
Zanardi and the leader, Brian Herta, were heading for the course's perilous hilltop Corkscrew, a downward turn to the left that sweeps into a sharp, sloping curve to the right. No fully rational man would try to pass on the Corkscrew, particularly on the final lap of the final race of the season. "Most people in that situation," says veteran CART writer Jeremy West, "would have said, I don't need to win the race. Don't risk damaging the car. Just bring it home.' "
But Zanardi was cut from a different bolt of cloth. Herta climbed to the top of that hill, whining through third and then fourth gears, and he was just beginning the descent into the Corkscrew when Zanardi suddenly gunned it. Swinging under Herta's car, he grabbed the lead. Of course he was going so fast that he could not make the left, so he just kept going straight. He bounced over a curb, shot across a patch of gravel, just missing a wall of tires on his right, and then jumped back on the course, still in front. He raced to a narrow victory while Ganassi, as stunned as anyone, yelled in Zanardi's ears by radio, "You're the Man, Alex! You're the Man!"
Reggie Jackson had his three home runs in one World Series game, Wilt Chamberlain his 100-point game, Secretariat his 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes. In the annals of CART the single most transcendent moment, the one that still plays at dinner parties and sells T-shirts, is Zanardi's audacious stroke at Laguna—a move known simply as the Pass. "It was a pivotal point in Zanardi's career, a pivotal point for CART," Ganassi says. "To say that it was energizing is an understatement."
The Pass forever stamped Zanardi as a daring, never-say-die charger at the wheel, setting the tone for a career in which he would be known as the Roadrunner. Barely a year earlier, however, Zanardi hadn't been able to find a decent job in racing. He had driven Formula One in Europe, but he had never driven a competitive car or come close to winning a Grand Prix event. Hungry and unemployed in late '95, he had come to America—a displaced European romantic resigned to prowling the paddocks of CART from Boston to Laguna, trying to catch a ride with a racing team.
"I came thinking I could easily find a ride because I had Formula One experience," says Zanardi, "but I couldn't find anybody who would sit down with me and hear what I had to say. Nobody knew me in America. It was difficult."
This was not how Alessandro Zanardi had dreamed it while growing up in Castel Maggiore, a village of some 15,000 people five miles north of Bologna where he was born on Oct. 23, 1966. He was the younger of two children of Dino Zanardi, a passionate, Vesuvian-tempered plumber, and his wife, Anna, a timid, gentle-natured shirtmaker. The seismic event of Alessandro's boyhood occurred in 1979, when his 15-year-old sister, Cristina, a gifted swimmer with Olympic aspirations, was killed in an automobile accident. Alessandro was 13.