CHAMPCAR/CART: Winning never gets old for Alex Zanardi

Winning never gets old for Alex Zanardi, the two-time Champ Car titleholder, a 15-race winner who changed the culture of motor racing with his truly efficient and rarely duplicated "doughnut" victory celebrations.

Alex Zanardi.
Photo by Dave Dyer.
Although missing the major part of both legs following his September 2001 accident on the 1.5-mile EuroSpeedway Lausitz oval circuit, Zanardi has never lost his spirit, his innate desire to succeed in life. And on the track.

His overall career in racing was the basis for an autobiography "Alex Zanardi: My Sweetest Victory", which is now in its second US printing through Bentley Publishers [www.BentleyPublishers.com]. Zanardi, though, would rather have called the book "My Sweetest Victory - So Far" as he's never lost his zest for the sport.

Currently racing in the inaugural FIA World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) in a factory BMW 320i for team BMW Team Italy-Spain, Zanardi is "still up to the challenges" the racing life has to offer. The final WTCC race of the season takes place in Macau on November 20th and Zanardi is hoping to take his second victory in the series this year.

Who would have expected him to succeed in this manner? Anyone who watched the Italian climb to the top of the starters' stand at the Molson Indy Toronto ten months after his accident was either convinced the guy was nuts or had some indomitable spirit that simply kept him going.

Zanardi puts it all at the feet of his mother, who instilled in her son an incredible desire to succeed, to never give up on anything. He has always seen the "glass as half full, not half empty.

"I'm grateful I can drive fast enough to win in the WTCC and I've had a pretty good season, winning the Italian Superturismo championship and one race in the world championship. I'm a busy man," Zanardi confessed, "but I will come back to the States after Macau to do some promotion for my book and for my sponsor Barilla," (the pasta maker).

Working on his book, being with his family, continuing his racing all take up a good deal of time for Zanardi. "I have so many friends in the United States that when I go to races, it's to see my friends. I enjoy the beautiful, fantastic races put on by Champ Car, but mostly when I come here I come to see friends."

Alex Zanardi.
Photo by Dave Dyer.
It's become second nature to Zanardi to race using his hand and foot (brake) controls, from his first competition in the FIA European Touring Car Championship in October of 2003 at the Monza circuit. Of course he is "the only guy on tour that is using this prosthetic leg that is 15 inches off a residual limb to press the brake pedal.

"I had to come up with solutions that are absolutely unique in this kind." Zanardi's engineering expertise has helped his crew members come up with the right solutions to his one-of-a-kind differences.

Thirty years in the profession has taught Zanardi that he still has plenty to learn about racing, particularly racing without legs. "I had to come up with solutions and I don't have all the answers because I don't know what the questions are all the time," he explained.

In his current situation, "I am very vulnerable as I lose and regain control of the car" with his hand controls.

"I am becoming better at driving that way, talking with the engineers and trying to simulate coming out of a turn, going for the throttle with one point of my finger, not pushing the accelerator pedal," Zanardi said of the ring that serves as his throttle.

"I feel everything is improvable. For a while I struggled with the mechanical controls and their electrical problems. The way it works on the fly-by-wire system, it's like an F1 car's electronics. Every time you move you send a signal to operate the butterfly.

"My engine is working hard when the mechanism shakes; it's slow to stop vibrating, but when I am trying to race, each second is important so recently we built a mechanical throttle that's similar to similar to what's on a BMX aerobatic bicycle. The mechanical throttle helps me. I've not been out of the top six (except for incidents) and it's a big plus.

"I'm getting more competitive, giving better feedback and I can drive the car better and get better results," Zanardi verified. With his unique brake that uses "a sort of a second shoe mounted on the brake pedal." He presses down with his hip, uses his mechanical knee as a simple joint and puts pressure on the brake pedal.

How simple is that?

Alex Zanardi.
Photo by Alessio Morgese.
While Alex Zanardi's tale of racing resurrection gives lots of inspiration to people all over the world, he is quick to confirm "everything I've done so far I only did it for me." Not in a selfish manner, as he is quick to assist people who have similar problems to his own.

Zanardi is one year shy of 40 and "have some gray hair growing. I'm still thinking I can drive a race car fast enough to win and to have success. What I'm doing today is about the max I can do myself, if I want to do something well," he explained of his exploits in WTCC for BMW, who ask little of Zanardi in the off-season.

"If my desire was just to prove to people that I can still drive a Champ Car and take it around the circuit, yes I could do it," Zanardi restated. "But if you are a racer, you only race if you know that you can race 100 percent."

Zanardi's results in the WTCC keep him hungry. And he's not worried about the danger, having passed that hurdle, getting out of a big wreck at Imola last year. "For sure it's more dangerous than playing golf, but it's not the most dangerous thing you can do on earth." Winning any race never gets old to Alex Zanardi.