CHAMPCAR/CART: Zanardi press conference transcript, part 1

CHAMP CAR WORLD SERIES PRESS CONFERENCE TRANSCRIPT WITH ALEX ZANARDI ERIC MAUK: Welcome everyone to a very special Champ Car media teleconference where we are joined by two-time Champ Car World Series champion, 15-time race winner, a man that...


ERIC MAUK: Welcome everyone to a very special Champ Car media teleconference where we are joined by two-time Champ Car World Series champion, 15-time race winner, a man that needs little introduction to everyone on the call, Mr. Alex Zanardi. Alex, thank you very much for joining us today.

ALEX ZANARDI: It's absolutely my pleasure and I wish to say good morning to everyone connected right now.

ERIC MAUK: Alex, a great book. We've talked about it many times before, but it has had great success. It's gone through a second printing of that. If you could, talk about the reception you've gotten from that book and how things have gone between the time you've written it and now?

ALEX ZANARDI: Well, first of all, let me thank Champ Car and Bentley Publishers for offering the teleconference. It's a great pleasure to have this kind attention from you guys. It's been a while since the accident. And once again, I get great pleasure to be connected with you.

Of course it's fantastic for me, the reaction that we've had from the crowd, the people, the readers of my book when it got first released. I was very, very happy that I finally found a great publisher in Bentley Publishers to have my book translated in American and to have it out in the U.S. with a different title, because the Italian version of the title is untranslatable.

The question was what we should call it and it just came out of my mind, quote, "My Sweetest Victory", although the real title should be "My Sweetest Victory So Far" because I'm still racing and I'm still out to look for challenges and that's what I live for. And that is why I believe, you know, it should really be called "My Sweetest Victory So Far."

Nevertheless, it is a very simple book, nothing special, simply my story written in a way, to my view, it's kind of funny. I believe in the book there are some very ironical moments, together with some difficult moments of my racing career. I am sure all the drivers have a lot of great stories to tell, but my story, it is so particular and so unique of this kind because I had that terrible accident four years ago, without which I probably would not have wrote a book.

What did I want to put in that book? It was simply my story. In other words, what you get there is not my accident, is not my recovery after the accident, it is simply my life. And the accident in the book, it is simply, you know, one chapter, as it is in my life, it is a chapter of my life. It is not, you know, all about the accident itself. Anyway, to cut the story short, I hope you will enjoy it and I want to thank the journalists for having been so nice and supporting the book. And maybe after if they could help us a little bit more going towards Christmas this year.

ERIC MAUK: It's most definitely a great read. And I can assure everybody on the call that has not read it yet, you will never look at the way go-kart tires are made in the same vein ever again after reading that. We'll open it up from the media, so I would ask that you limit it to one question for Alex and one brief follow-up.

Q: When might we have a repeat of your appearance at the Toronto race? Any chance we might see you at a Champ Car race any time soon?

ALEX ZANARDI: As you know, I'm a busy man right now. I haven't given up yet, although I have some gray hair growing. I'm still thinking that I can drive a race car fast enough to win and to have success and that's why I'm currently quite busy with the World Touring Car Championship, driving for the BMW team Italy Spain.

We actually had a pretty good season, because our expectation was not that great. And you know, we ended up winning the Italian Championship together with one race off the World Championship, so we're very, very happy with that. We still have one race to go in Macau, China, on November 20th, and I will come to the States right after that race for a promotional tour, which for sure will include some promotional activities related to the book, as well as for my sponsor. And certainly I will be a guest on some television programs which are currently under organization. Let's put it that way.

So I can't really answer you this question, but I have so many friends in the United States that for sure I want to go to one of your races and I want to see once again my friends and not only enjoy a beautiful and spectacular race, but also have the opportunity to see some of my old friends and spend some time with them.

Q: Any time you can get away, I think I speak for everybody when I say that we would all be overjoyed to see you again, as we are just to talk with you today. I guess if I'm permitted one follow-up, then let me just ask: The different contraptions and everything that enable you to race the BMW now, has that become pretty much -- obviously it probably has become second nature to you now, almost to the point where I assume you don't even really, you don't really think about it too much when you get in the car and drive. Is that correct?

ALEX ZANARDI: Well, as briefly as I am capable, we've covered certainly a lot of ground from the word go, which was in 2003. It's quite difficult for me because when you sit in a car you take for granted that the pedals, the gear lever, the steering wheel, everything is in the right position. And you take for granted this is the way it's supposed to be.

I sat in one historical car and I can tell you it was awful to drive because the gearshift was in between my legs and the throttle was on the right and the brake was on the left and the clutch was in the middle, and the steering wheel was in a terrible position. Why did they place the controls in this way? But the answer is very simple, it was from 1940 or something like this, and at the time they hadn't figured out yet what was best.

So me, as a handicapped person, I'm the only guy on tour that is using this prosthetic leg that is 15 inches off a residual limb to press the brake pedal. For that, of course I had to come up with solutions that are absolutely unique in this kind. So the point is what I said before, not only do I not have all the answers, I don't even know what the question is most of the time. Of course, I believe if we've been able to enjoy some success it's definitely because we've taken it in the right direction, but we haven't got to the end yet.

I mean, there's still some improvements to be made, which I believe in some circumstances could help me to improve my performance even more. Not everywhere, not overall, because otherwise I wouldn't have been able to win races, I wouldn't have been able to be competitive. But the bottom line is to this day, I am still a very vulnerable driver. I mean, for me it takes much more concentration to take the race car around its limit, and sometimes it's easier for me to make mistakes, to lose control of the car. And when I do, to regain control of the car is even more difficult.

I'm telling you, I'm pretty busy inside that cockpit. Nevertheless, it's certainly becoming very familiar for me to drive that way. And even when I talk about my race car, and you know me, and I talk a lot about it, with the engine, and I try to simulate. You know, despite the fact that Italians, they talk quite a lot, it's basically my instinct. When I say, I come out of the turn and I go for the power, normally a driver would simulate that by putting his foot down to the floor. And the reality when I simulate that, it is so natural for me now to play with my finger and pretend I'm pulling my ring that is under the steering wheel, you know. So it is quite an instinctive movement right now, but still I believe everything is improvable.

Q: I know when I last saw you, you were struggling with the mechanical controls on that car. What have the guys done, what has the team done to make it more drivable for you?

ALEX ZANARDI: In fact, I was struggling with the throttle. That's the way it works. This is the way it works. It's sort of a fly-by wire, but the difference is that normally, like in the Formula One car, you have electrical device which leads the signal of whatever you move, whether it's a pedal or a ring under your steering wheel, and then through a wire, transfer this signal to something that operates the butterfly on the engine.

Now, in a Formula One engine you have an activator that opens the butterfly for you. In my car, what FIA allowed us to use, was basically the standard electronic motor that opens the butterfly in the Standard 320 BMW car. That is a very good mechanism, but it's made to last probably something like 500,000 miles, you know. Therefore, they had to put some meat on it, you know. It's a pretty heavy mechanism.

When you try to operate that mechanism, as fast as it takes to race the car, basically the mechanism starts to vibrate, and the reason why is because of the weight. Basically you try to make that movement operate the butterfly very rapidly. It builds up an inertia where if you go from zero to full power you have no problems, but if you go from zero to 50 percent, the mechanism trying to operate fast, will not then stop at 50 percent, will overshot that point and probably go to 62. And then the system understands and says, oops, I've gone too far. But then it takes it back, but then goes to 42, and then up to 58, then it goes down to 46, and on and on and on until it finally settles at 50.

But because of that problem, basically that interferes also with the engine management because, you know, due to the certain position of the throttle, the engine management also decides how much fuel to let go into the engine, how much ignition, how much this and how much that. I mean, my engine was really working badly when that throttle mechanism was starting to shake, to vibrate that rapidly. So the only option for us to use it at an acceptable level was to slow it down to the point it would stop vibrating. And that is excellent for our old use, no problems at all, but when you're trying to race that car and every thousandth of a second counts, I was under the impression that mechanism was not allowing me to race to the best of my and the car's ability.

That's why we recently built inside the team, a totally mechanical throttle. And we aspired actually in building this mechanism to the way the BMX, the bicycle, acrobatic bicycle, the brakes of this bicycle works, where you can pull the brakes, but you have a mechanism with sort of a wheel bearing in between that allows you to turn the steering bar 360 degrees. And we built this mechanical throttle, and since I've been in the car, I've never been out of the top 6. It may be a coincidence. I'm not saying that was the greatest difference we found so far, but it was certainly a big plus and something that allowed me to be not only more competitive but to have better feedback from the throttle itself and to drive the car better with more confidence.

Q: I know that you wouldn't get in a race car unless you thought you could win a race. What was the reaction when you won from the pole? Were there people absolutely amazed that you could win in such a competitive series, when you won in Oschersleben?

ALEX ZANARDI: Well, first of all, let me say it's nice to hear your voice, and thanks for the question. It was a big relief, because, you said it, I mean, probably if I would have doubt the possibility to climb the highest step of the podium once again, I would have never got into it.

I knew the day of my waking up, after the coma, after the accident, that I was the same driver as before, but I didn't know whether technically I could have been that type of driver anymore, because -- one thing is to think, okay, it's time to brake. One thing is to have everything it takes to operate the brakes. When I drove the car the very first time with the system that I'm currently using, I knew it would have been a long road, but I knew there was some to work on and we would get there eventually. And then of course in racing, even if you have everything Mother Nature gave you in the first place, you have to accept that sometimes other drivers could be better than you, could do a better job.

So it's not just a question of overcoming the adversity and be able to drive to the same level as the others, that you are automatically going to win a race. It's a little bit more difficult than that, especially when you're competing in a championship where basically the entire field is basically based on official manufacturers, very good drivers. It's really, really difficult to win races in our championship.

When I won that race in Oschersleben, it was a great relief, because I knew after that day that deep inside I was probably the only one that was sure that this could happen. And I could tell this any time I qualified for a race. I could measure that by how many pats on my back I would get. People were sincere and incredibly touched with me just scoring 8th place or 7th place or 6th place or being in the Top 10 in qualifying. Everybody probably thought that was absolutely the best a guy in my situation could get, especially in the field where all the drivers competing, you know, against me are so good and so talented.

And that is nice. Don't get me wrong. I really appreciate people appreciating my effort in overcoming my personal problems, but nevertheless, it was probably my biggest limit, because any time I would qualify maybe in the Top 10 and I would jump out of the car and say, I've got a problem, the car is understeering or the car is oversteering, nobody would really take me that seriously. They would probably think, okay, we'll look at it, but then they would probably think, well, what can you do more. You know, after all, I mean, you've got to be happy with what you have. Of course you've got understeer, everybody has understeer. But with your problems, the fact that we've been able to place you in the Top 10 is already a miracle. We have to be really happy with that.

I mean, this is not a criticism. This is simply underlining what the reality being up to that point. After that, all my guys, the mechanics, all the team members, the engineers, and probably the entire WTCC community realized all of a sudden that it was definitely not the case. You know, especially my mechanics, my team members, they said, well, then really, it is possible. It can really be done. Wow. Previous to that day, nobody believed that.

Also, people worked so hard to get me a car to drive, that spent days and nights of hard work to get me the best possible car they could. But once again, you know, I'm not saying that from now on I'm going to win every race, but I can tell that now my boys are really trying harder because if I qualify in the Top 10, they are starting to ask me, why didn't you qualify 8th, why didn't you qualify 7th, why didn't you qualify 6th, why aren't you in pole position.

That's what I want to hear from them. That's what I want to see from them, is the anger that I want to get out of the people I work with. Because despite the fact that I'm an old fart and almost close to my 40s, I'm in this business because I believe I'm talented enough to still win races if I get given the right car to do the job. I hope that answered your question.

Q: Yes. You're on your way to becoming the 21st Century Galileo. You worked on the car, you got a ski seat, what else have you been designing lately?

ALEX ZANARDI: As a matter of fact, just one hour ago I had to run because I didn't pay attention to the time. I was in the shop fixing one of my legs. I had one of my legs in my hands. And my mechanics, they were laughing because I made such a mess. I took all this leg apart and they saw I couldn't get it back together. But finally I got it back together, especially because it's my primary leg, my primary left leg. I was wearing a spare one to be able to do some fixing to it. I don't know. I don't know what next is yet to come. I would like to win some more races. I would like to enjoy some more satisfaction. Right now my near future is still with BMW in the WTCC Championship for the next season, and probably also for the following one. I may be too old to continue. I don't know. At that point I will find something else to keep myself busy.

Q: I had a technical question, if you could ask that first. And that is, are you using your legs at all in driving?

ALEX ZANARDI: Yes. The way I'm driving is very simple. I operate the throttle with basically with a ring that is under the steering wheel, so I pull it with my fingers. The clutch mechanism is on the gear lever itself. I have a small lever that operates electronically, an electrical motor that opens the clutch pump.

And for what concerns the brake, the brakes are absolutely standard, racing standard, what all the other drivers are using up to the top of the brake pedal. At that point, basically, the only difference is that I have a sort of a second shoe mounted on the brake pedal itself that traps my prosthetic foot. And then by pressing down with my hip and using my mechanical knee as a simple joint, I put pressure on the brake pedal. That is the way I utilize the brakes.

Q: My other question was, this is one of these Barbara Walters TV questions, and that is, in the future, if your son decides he wants to race, what will you say?

ALEX ZANARDI: I will be happy. But I don't think -- at least for that type of sport, I'm going to be satisfied. Because he took too much after his mom and he's a very precocious kid, he doesn't seem to have any interest for driving a race car. I hope he will find sports that he likes and I hope he will try to be serious in terms of putting all his energies into trying to succeed in a sporting activity, because I think this is what changed me, to be able to play sports for so long in my life, for the better, definitely for the better. I don't think I would have been the type of guy I am if it hadn't have been for my sporting activity. This is not to say that I'm the best guy, but simply to say I probably would have been much, much worse had I not been a race car driver.

Q: Well, you were the best.

ALEX ZANARDI: Thank you very much.

Continued in part 2

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Alex Zanardi