THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES: ZANARDI BIDS FAREWELL AT FONTANA Fontana, Calif. - Alex Zanardi's stellar career with Target/Chip Ganassi Racing will come to a close with the running of the Marlboro 500 at the California Speedway on Nov. 1. When he...
THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES: ZANARDI BIDS FAREWELL AT FONTANA
Fontana, Calif. - Alex Zanardi's stellar career with Target/Chip Ganassi Racing will come to a close with the running of the Marlboro 500 at the California Speedway on Nov. 1. When he crosses the finish line in Fontana on Sunday afternoon, it will mark the end of one of the most impressive three-year tenures in CART history.
Since bursting on the scene as a relative unknown in 1996, Zanardi has quickly built one of the most enviable resumes in the history of the series. He became the first driver to win Rookie of the Year and two PPG Cup championships in his first three seasons. He has amassed 15 victories and an amazing 27 podium finishes in just 50 starts. He won the 1998 championship in record fashion, clinching the title faster than any driver in CART history and winning the title by the widest point margin in the history of the series. He established CART records for consecutive pole positions (6), consecutive front-row starts (11), consecutive victories (4) and most podium finishes in a season (14). With a win at Fontana, he could tie the record for most wins in a season (8).
Zanardi will be remembered for much more than just his wins and records, however. When people recall Zanardi's brief but shining CART career, they will undoubtedly remember the passion, personality and pizzazz he brought to the series. The "fast, fun and friendly" attitude. They will talk about his signature victory "doughnuts." And they will reminisce about the great racing moments and comebacks that punctuated "The Zanardi Years." Events like "The Pass" of Bryan Herta in the corkscrew on the last lap at Laguna Seca in 1996. "The Comeback" at Cleveland in 1997 when he stormed back from 22nd place to take the checkered flag. "The Other Pass" of Herta on the second-to-last lap of the 1998 Long Beach Grand Prix.
As Zanardi prepared for his 51st and final Champ Car race, he took time out to talk about his last race and reflect on the last three years and some of his favorite moments and most vivid memories. Q. Obviously, Fontana doesn't bring back many good memories for you because of the two crashes. Can you talk a little about your experiences there, and about how you'll approach this year's race?
A. It's not that the memories are bad. It just wasn't a good race weekend for me or my team. It was very frustrating. But this year, we'll approach things the same way we do every race, and that is with the intention of winning it. We certainly had a good car at the U.S. 500 earlier this year, so I'm confident the set-up will be good. I keep getting asked about my motivation now that I've won the championship and decided to go to Formula One next year, but for me I'm doing what I love. I just love to race cars, and that's my job, so it's not difficult for me to stay motivated. I want to win every race, so motivation isn't ever a problem.
Q. Do you think the race can be any more exciting than the U.S. 500 was in terms of all the drafting and passing? Do you expect a similar type of race?
A. I'm certain it will be a very exciting race for the fans, just like Michigan was. It will be much more fun to watch than to drive in. As I said at Michigan, I don't think this kind of race allows the driver to use his skills as much as road or street courses do. It's not as challenging. The car is much more important. But I'm sure the race will be very entertaining and will have a lot of wheel-to-wheel racing and plenty of passing.
Q. This will be your final CART race and your final race with your Target/Chip Ganassi team. What do you think your feelings might be when you're ready to begin that race - and how emotional will it be when it's over?
A. Hopefully it will be very emotional after the race because I'll be up on the podium and I'll be very excited and happy. People seem to expect that this is going to be a very dramatic thing, or a very emotional time, but to be honest I'm going to be too focused on the race and what we need to do to win that I don't think it will be that emotional. I'm not going to be sad or nostalgic, because I don't have anything to be sad about. I've had a fantastic three years here. Maybe my feelings will change when I actually fly off for the last time and when I say goodbye to all my friends here, but I won't be thinking about those things before the race.
Q. You've had a lot of great races and great race moments over the last three years. Do you have one that stands out more than the others, or one that was the most satisfying?
A. That's very difficult to say because there really have been so many great races and special memories. The wins at Laguna Seca in 1996 and Cleveland in 1997 were really unbelievable and very satisfying, but if I had to pick one I would have to say this year's race at Long Beach. I was a lap down halfway through the race and was in ninth place with about 12 laps to go, and I'm sure no one thought I could win. But my team did a great job and we were able to climb back and win the race. It was a tremendous team effort. The most incredible thing about that race, though, which I will never forget, is the roar of the crowd I heard when I passed Bryan (Herta) on the next-to-last lap. When you're driving you never hear the crowd, so I remember being just amazed at that sound. I felt like I was at a World Cup soccer game because it was so loud and the people were going so crazy. At one point after the pass I actually eased up a bit on the car so I could make sure that's what I was really hearing. I'd never experienced anything like that. It was absolutely incredible.
Q. What was your most disappointing race?
A. I'd have to say Mid-Ohio this season. We had great hopes for that race and things just didn't go our way all day. It was a very frustrating afternoon on the track, and then it obviously got worse when I was fined and put on probation afterwards. That's definitely a race I'd like to forget.
Q. Who was your toughest competitor in the series?
A. Jimmy Vasser. He's been a great teammate and a great friend, but he's a very tough competitor too, and he really pushed me. He's incredibly consistent. If I weren't around this season, he'd probably be the champion. This whole series is very competitive, though, and there are a lot of excellent drivers out there who can win races.
Q. Do you have any regrets from the last three years? Is there anything you would do differently if you could?
A. No, that's not how I live my life. I never look back and say I should have done this or I should have done that. I really just try and make the best of every moment, so I don't have regrets.
Q. Besides the races, what are some of the lasting images you'll remember from your years with Target/Chip Ganassi Racing?
A. Again, there are too many to pick one or two, but I'd say just the time spent with Jimmy, the boys on the crew and the entire team. We've spent so much time together, had a lot of fun times together and become good friends. I'll miss that camaraderie and those friendships.
Q. Do you have any advice for your replacement, Juan Pablo Montoya?
A. Take care of Morris (Nunn)! He's the best chief engineer in the business.
Q. Do you have any parting words for your fans in the U.S?
A. Shop at Target, of course.