By Steve Keating
(Reuters) – Despite having lost both his legs in a crash Alex Zanardi jokes that he has both feet firmly planted on the ground when it comes to expectations for this weekend’s 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race.
Back racing against some of motorsports very best 17 years after a horrific accident nearly cost him his life, Zanardi long ago removed the limits on what is possible.
A dreamer with his own definition of reality, the 52-year-old appears not to be weighed down by anything other than gravity.
“We all have expectations but sometimes the greatest thing is to be surprised with what happens and to find out that it is quite different from the way you imagined it,” Zanardi told Reuters. “I try to, pardon the expression, stay with my feet on the ground.
“I know this is a great opportunity from a personal point of view but also where other people have expectations, they have invested a lot of resources, a lot of effort in preparing for this event.
“I am not in a hurry to cross that line because whenever that will be it will be the end of this chapter.”
The final chapter in Zanardi’s story appeared to have been written on September 15, 2001 at a Champ Car (now IndyCar) race at the Lausitzring in Germany when he lost control coming out of the pits and was speared by Canadian Alex Tagliani at close to 350 kph.
Zanardi’s race car disintegrated, the Italian, still strapped into the cockpit, was dying with both legs severed above the knee and blood streaming onto the track.
Safety crews went to work in a desperate effort to save him. There seemed little hope as Zanardi, who lost all but a litre of blood, went into cardiac arrest while being airlifted to a hospital and was given last rites.
This, however, would not be the end but rather the start of an even richer chapter.
Charismatic and immensely talented, Zanardi twice captured the Champ Car series title and competed in 41 Formula One grands prix between 1991 and 1999 with his final season at Williams.
While Zanardi lost his legs, his indomitable spirit survived intact.
Finding new ways to feed his competitive fire he has competed at two Paralympics in hand-cycling, winning multiple gold medals. He has also raced in the Ironman world championships and several marathons.
With every new adventure Zanardi has become a symbol of resilience and perseverance. However, he does not want to be held up as an inspirational talisman.
“The accident for sure was one of the most important experiences of my life,” Zanardi said. “During the course of my rehabilitation I had people who were exactly what I needed to be inspired.
“I haven’t done any of the things I have done to inspire others but I am sure that if I am watching my story from the outside I would be joining the club saying; ‘Wow, that guy really gets you going.’
“For sure I have done some things in a good way, for sure I stood up when it was time to go in front of some adversity but it was also an opportunity for me, not to become a better person but a more complete one.”
Racing has been in Zanardi’s blood since a very young age. It is part of his DNA.
Ask Zanardi if he wants to continue racing and he answers with another question.
“Does the cat like to chase the mouse?,” he laughs.
Two years after the accident, he returned to the Lausitzring and finished the 13 laps that he had failed to complete during that ill-fated race and has also competed in the world touring car championship.
After Daytona, Zanardi says he has no plans but would no say no to the Le Mans 24 Hours.
“I cannot forecast the race (Daytona) will go well and therefore right after the race will say ‘Alex let’s do Le Mans, come on let’s get that together,’” said Zanardi, who will be one of four drivers for the BMW Team RLL in Daytona.
“It is not that important to me, but if I can why shouldn’t I? It is as simple as that.
“Sometimes life decides for you.
“I really wish for people to try to stay curious… to be inspired to be convinced that if we try, if we have a plan and we execute this plan with passion and dedication there are a lot of things we can do that other people would maybe judge magical.”
(Editing by Christian Radnedge)