SI Vault
William Nack
April 15, 2002
Having barely survived a horrific crash in which he lost both legs, Alex Zanardi is attacking rehab with the same passion and purpose that made him a racing champion
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April 15, 2002

After The Miracle

Having barely survived a horrific crash in which he lost both legs, Alex Zanardi is attacking rehab with the same passion and purpose that made him a racing champion

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"I was the crazy one, the wild one," Zanardi recalls, "and so after Cristina died my parents became very protective of me. They were very, very scared." They dreaded the day their only child would turn 14 and be of age to drive a motorbike. Right before Alessandro's birthday, Lord knows why, Dino walked into the motorcycle shop of an old friend, Alberto Bonini, whom he hadn't seen in eight years. Bonini was helping a boy clean his go-kart, one of those chain-driven contraptions in which so many larval Grand Prix drivers learn to steer at high speeds. Bonini urged Dino to buy Alessandro a go-kart and get him into racing. "Better for your son to burn his desire for speed on a closed circuit than out on the street on a motorcycle," Bonini said.

"My father fell in love with the idea," Zanardi says. And the boy, in turn, fell in love with driving karts. His first model, a cherry-red job, cost Dino $500, and Alex recalls the first time he sat in it as being a religious experience, an epiphany that gave brawn and focus to his life. "It was marvelous," he says. "That very first lap, seeing the asphalt going under me, feeling the way the tires gripped around the turns, seeing the curbs and grass on the sides of the circuit going by, the go-karts going by—zooooom! It was, by far, the best day of my life. I was already dreaming. I thought, This is it."

It was 1980. Over the next seven years, Zanardi became a major figure in European go-kart racing. "He had a hundred eyes," says CART driver Max Papis, a paisan who has known Zanardi since they raced karts together as teenagers. "He could see everything that was happening around him. And he was always very aggressive."

By the end of '87 the 21-year-old Zanardi had won three Italian go-kart titles and the European championship. The only place to go was up. And down: After leaving go-karts for Formula One, he wouldn't dominate as a racer again until he came to the U.S. Like so many young and gifted drivers, he never had a good enough car or team. In the late '80s he barely made a ripple in Formula Three—Double A ball to Formula One's major leagues—and his three-year foray in Grand Prix racing, from 1992 to '94, essentially came to grief in Belgium, in '93, after the hydraulic shock absorbers on his Lotus sprang a leak and he crashed at Eau Rouge.

Two years later, after Lotus had folded, Zanardi was adrift. Finally he left for California, where he met Ganassi. His r�sum� may have been thin, but Ganassi had heard from Europeans that Zanardi had this weird streak of genius: In '91, in an unfamiliar car at Pau, France, over a daunting street course he had never driven before, he astounded everybody but himself by putting his bucket on the pole. Says Ganassi, "That would be like a basketball player going into his first game as a college freshman and scoring 44 points."

But Ganassi's chief engineer, Morris Nunn, wanted no part of him. Nunn, an Englishman, believed that Italian drivers were too emotional, too volatile to win races on a major circuit, that they came unraveled late in a race. Indeed, Zanardi had made a lot of mistakes and crashed his share of cars in the early '90s. What Nunn did not know was that Zanardi's impatience had been attenuated by Daniela's calm. She and Alex had met in 1989, when she managed his team in Formula Three. "She was so good for Alex," Papis says. "He believed in racing with a lot of passion. Daniela believed in racing with a lot of rationality. She added reason to his passion."

Ganassi ignored Nunn's skepticism and invited Zanardi to test a car at the track in Homestead, Fla. The course has a hairpin turn coming into the final straight, and as Zanardi swept toward it, Nunn told Ganassi, "Watch, Chip, this guy's gonna come out of this turn going sideways." He did no such thing. "He came out of that turn very smooth and put the power down," says Nunn. "He was quicker than everybody else—on every lap."

So Ganassi signed him, and Zanardi, as a driver, was reborn. As things turned out, the Pass was but a prelude to the wildest, most exhilarating show that Champ car racing had known in years, at the center of which sat this amiable wisp of a man, 5'9" and 160 pounds, with the devil's own grin. For the first time in his life Zanardi had all he needed to win at the highest levels of his sport: a passionate owner, a gifted engineer, a well-lubed crew and the fastest, nastiest machine that $600,000 could buy.

Oh, yes, and that elegant drawing of a pineapple on his helmet, the classic Zanardi touch. In his rookie year he asked Nunn so many prickly questions about his car that Nunn began calling him Pineapple. Pretty soon the whole crew was calling him that. So, just before the race in Portland that year, Zanardi took colored markers and drew a large pineapple on top of his helmet. After he won tire pole and tow-roped the field for his first CART victory, leading in 95 of 98 laps, Zanardi adopted the fruit as his talisman. He wore that drawing on his bonnet all through '97, the year he won five races and his first CART tide, and '98, the season he became only the third driver to win consecutive championships, and finished third or better in an unprecedented 15 of 19 races, scoring more points in a season, 285, than any other CART driver in history.

"He could be a lap down in a race and come back," says Franchitti. "His single-mindedness, his determination, his balls—the guy just never gave up." In '97, on the Mid- Ohio road course in Cleveland, he had won the pole and was leading the field through the first 22 laps when, thinking he had heard Ganassi yell for him to pit, he failed to see that the lane was closed and he came in, incurring a penalty that forced him back to 21st place. Leaving the pit, he failed to blend in properly, a second violation. He was in 22nd place on Lap 35. Like the Pass, what Zanardi did over the next 50 laps would merit its own enduring name: the Drive.

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