CHAMPCAR/CART: Cleveland Alex Zanardi Preview

DEFENDING CHAMPION ZANARDI RECALLS "THE COMEBACK IN CLEVELAND" Alex Zanardi still beams when recalling his victory at the 1997 Medic Drug Grand Prix of Cleveland. His ear-to-ear grin is understandable, considering the roller-coaster ride he ...


Alex Zanardi still beams when recalling his victory at the 1997 Medic Drug Grand Prix of Cleveland. His ear-to-ear grin is understandable, considering the roller-coaster ride he endured and the stunning way in which he took the checkered flag at the Burke Lakefront Airport course last July 13.

After starting on the pole and leading the first 22 laps of the race, Zanardi's smooth sailing ended when he received a penalty for pitting under a closed-pit situation during a caution flag on Lap 23. After being forced to the rear of the pack, he was then assessed a second drive-through pit-lane penalty after the course went green for blending into the field illegally on his exit from the pits. As a result of the penalties, Zanardi found himself buried in 22nd place on Lap 37 of the 90-lap race. Adding to his growing plight was the fact that he had lost radio communication with his crew.

What followed is now known simply as "The Comeback." Over the next 44 laps, feeling he had nothing to lose, a determined Zanardi blazed his way through the field like a comet. Utilizing the wide turns and straightaways of the Burke Lakefront Airport course, he completed pass after pass to blast his way back into contention. He climbed to 18th on Lap 44, 15th on Lap 55, then charged from 13th on Lap 58 to fifth on Lap 59 when 12 drivers ahead of him pitted. By Lap 68 he had charged to third place, and by Lap 78 was in second place.

Zanardi culminated his remarkable charge by overtaking leader Gil de Ferran on Lap 84, just six laps from the finish, and held on for a 1.281-second victory. He punctuated his improbable victory with several of his trademark "doughnuts" en route to the Winner's Circle. In addition to his trophy, Zanardi collected $100,000 from the Marlboro Pole Award fund -- $10,000 for his pole position and another $90,000 in rollover bonus money for winning from the pole.

After the race, the ecstatic Italian described his stirring comeback as "not simply amazing or beautiful. It was something that will stick in my heart and never disappear. I cannot do anything better than I did today," he added.

As he prepares to return to the shores of Lake Erie for the 17th annual Medic Drug Grand Prix of Cleveland on July 12, Zanardi says he will always have a soft spot in his heart for this stop on the circuit.

"Because of last year's win, and the way we did it, it is a very special place for me," he said. "I still can't believe I made it through to win that race. With all the disadvantages we had early on, to come back and win was something I never thought possible."

Zanardi will arrive in Cleveland on a white-hot streak that has seen him take the checkered flag in three of the last four races, including back-to-back victories in Detroit and Portland that have propelled him to a 38-point lead over second-place Greg Moore in the PPG Cup points race. In his last 16 races dating back to last year's U.S. 500, Zanardi boasts an amazing 13 podium finishes, including eight victories. The "King of the Road" has been especially dominant on the road courses, having won six of the last nine road/street circuit events, including all three this season. He says he is looking forward to getting back on the road again in Cleveland.

"I love the Cleveland course, and not just because I've had success there," he said. "It's a spectacular track because there are a lot of straight lines along with the right combination of corners. It's really easy to overtake somebody, but at the same time it's also pretty easy to overshoot the corners and get passed right back on the exit. I think it's a really fun and entertaining course for the fans because of the action and the passing, and they can see the whole track."

Zanardi's teammate, Jimmy Vasser, who remains in third place in the PPG Cup points race, is confident he can rebound from disappointing finishes in Cleveland in 1996 (10th) and 1997 (13th). "I haven't had great success in Cleveland, with the exception of a third-place finish in 1995 and a pole position in 1996," Vasser said, "so I'm looking forward to turning things around this year. Burke Lakefront Airport is a pretty bumpy course so you really have to get the shocks working well over the bumps. From the fans' point of view, Cleveland is a great venue because they can see the entire track."

The Cleveland race marks the midway point of the 1998 FedEx Championship Series, and both drivers are gunning for improvements in the second half of the season.

"Unless you win every race, there are always ways to improve," said Zanardi, who has been an extremely strong finisher the last two seasons. (He amassed 115 of his 132 points in the final eight races of the 1996 season and 128 of his 195 points in the final eight races of the 1997 campaign en route to the PPG Cup championship.)

"The consistency of the whole Target/Chip Ganassi team has been fantastic over the past two-and-a-half years, but I hope we can make that even better," Zanardi added. "We want to have the car performing at the top week in and week out and not have any races where we're not competitive and up near the front."

"Obviously I'd like to win some more races and catch up to Alex in the point standings," said Vasser, who trails his teammate by 49 points and Greg Moore by 11 points. "We've gotten a couple wins in the first half, which is nice, but that's not enough. We need to step it up and make a final push and get some good points the second half of the season."

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Gil de Ferran , Jimmy Vasser , Alex Zanardi , Chip Ganassi , Greg Moore