We only live once,” Alex Zanardi assured me. “But not in your case,” I said, because the thirty-seven-year-old Italian has started a new life after coming back from the dead. He is racing again, despite losing both legs above the knee after his Reynard-Honda was ripped apart during the Lausitzring CART race in Germany on September 15, 2001. That simple statement encapsulates a story worthy of a far-fetched novel in which the hero almost bleeds to death, his heart stops three times, and he is given the last rites. At once humbling and inspirational, Zanardi’s courage is complemented by a nice sense of humor. He jokes about being given so much of a Berlin hospital’s blood that he now qualifies for a German passport, and he no longer worries about catching a cold from walking on bare feet. Best of all, he returned to the Lausitzring last May and “completed” the fateful race in a Reynard-Ford-Cosworth. Sixty-eight thousand spectators chanted his name as Alessandro the Great lapped at 194 mph. He was quick enough to have qualified on the third row of the grid.
The racer who thrilled American fans while winning the CART title in 1997 and ’98 was riding a quad bike when we met at Monaco‘s rain-swept heliport. How fast could he lap the glitzy little principality’s around-the-houses grand prix circuit? He laughed. “These tires are no good in the wet,” he said. “I’ve already had it sideways twice this morning.”
Getting sideways is what caused the accident that almost killed him. Zanardi was leading the pack with thirteen laps to go when he stopped for fuel and tires, then accelerated hard enough to spin while leaving the pit lane. He was in the middle of the track, sideways and stationary, as vulnerable as vulnerable can be, when Alex Tagliani arrived at 200 mph.
“I didn’t remember anything about the race until last May, when I went back to the Lausitzring and started to push on lap 3,” Zanardi said as we talked over strong coffee. “The first time I took turn 3 wide open was like switching a television on. A lot of things came back immediately. I had started twenty-third, because I didn’t have a chance to qualify-it was raining-but was catching everybody. I remembered passing my teammate, who was leading. I must have been conscious for a few seconds after the impact, because television footage shows me trying to release the safety harness.”
The doctors eventually decided to bring him out of an induced coma so that his wife, Daniela, could tell him about his legs. How did he react? “At that stage, I couldn’t care less about my legs,” he said, shrugging. “They were the least of my worries, because I was in so much pain and the overall situation was so terrible. But they managed to save some of my left leg after thinking it would have to be amputated at the hip. That would have been really bad. I could have walked, but it would have been bloody difficult. They were determined to keep as much of that leg as they could, having failed to save my right knee, but an infection developed, and my temperature went above 104 degrees before they found an antibiotic that worked.”
He left the hospital on October 30, 2001. Guardian angels included a doctor friend who contacted a center in Zanardi’s birthplace, Bologna, that specialized in prosthetic limbs. Being able to discuss problems in the regional patois of his childhood was a huge bonus. Within three months, he was walking on his new legs.
Visions of racing again were sidelined by concerns about living as normal a life as possible. But the knowledge that he would walk again had kept Zanardi’s spirits up. “If you suffer injuries as bad as mine, there is going to be a moment when you ask yourself the ‘Why me?’ question. But I have always regarded the bottle as half full, not half empty, so I avoided that moment. Maybe it’s because I’m an extrovert who saw this challenge as another opportunity to prove I had character by holding my head high and doing things people didn’t expect me to do. You have to do this for yourself. When you come home at night and look in the mirror, you’re not going to like what you see unless you’re pushing yourself, whether you’re a handsome guy or a guy without legs.
“Six months after my accident, I went for a two-mile walk and came back all sweaty after walking as fast as I could. I used to run six miles in forty minutes, so I decided that walking two miles in forty minutes was my new target. At that moment, I looked in the mirror and saw something I really liked. It doesn’t matter if you’re the fastest man in the world, or the slowest. Working to your limits is what gives you satisfaction.
“Am I happy? Yes. But it didn’t happen magically. It may look like magic to people who switched the television off in September 2001, after seeing me leaving two trails of blood on the track, then switched on again in May 2003 and saw me lapping the Lausitzring at 194 mph. ‘Man! How the hell did he do that?’ But I lived those months hour by hour and day by day, so there was no magic in it for me.”
He remembered a very special moment with his young son, Niccolo: “We went to the beach to throw stones into the water. That day was a milestone in my rehabilitation-the first time the two of us had been out together since the accident.”
His wife played a key role when the medics announced that their patient would survive but were not sure how well he would be after such a traumatic ordeal. “Another woman might have said, ‘Darling, I love you, but what are we going to do?’ when I came out of the coma. But not Daniela. She knew I would want to drive, so a BMW with manual controls was waiting for me the day I arrived home in Monaco, seven weeks after the accident.”
Zanardi knew he could shift gears and work a hand throttle at the Lausitzring, but he wondered about operating a 750-horsepower single-seater’s unassisted brakes. The experts were still scratching their heads when he and his brother-in-law visited a kart track in Italy.
The brother-in-law was slow enough to attract a lot of good-natured flak. Challenged to do better, Zanardi had his prosthetic feet strapped to the pedals with plastic tie wraps.
“The idea was to prove a point by doing a lap. So I go out and am amazed. I have pretty good sensitivity and spend half an hour going like hell. Back home, I called the engineer on the project, who wasn’t making any progress. I said I thought I could operate the brakes with my leg. He said it was impossible but suggested I get into a racing car and use data-acquisition equipment to see how much pedal pressure I could generate. I asked him to hold on for a minute, because I had data-acquisition stuff right there. I went to the bathroom, stood the scales against the wall, sat down with my back to the bath, pushed hard . . . then asked if 200 pounds would be enough. That was plenty, he said.”
The next stop was England, where the team made sure that Zanardi and his prosthetic legs were compatible with a specially modified Reynard-Ford-Cosworth. His face lit up as he recalled how good it felt to accelerate so smoothly while shifting with the gear lever and the hand-operated clutch. “It was as if I’d been in the car the previous day. In fact, everything seemed so normal that it almost got me as I approached the end of the proving ground’s straight at something like 200 mph. Then and only then”-he made frantic downshifting noises-“did I hope the brakes would work. I did another run but was suddenly driving a three-wheeler when the rear suspension broke. That was a scary moment.”
Back at the Lausitzring, he made it clear that he wasn’t going to do thirteen parade laps. He was going to push hard, to prove a point, but he needed a little practice. No problem, they said. How many laps would he do? Forty or fifty, Zanardi answered. “But I came in and said, ‘That’s it. I’m already where I want to be,’ after my fourth flying lap.
“That test was even better than the thirteen laps, because it proved I could do it, but the actual run was fantastic. A situation like that touches people because the driver looks so vulnerable. Vulnerability inspires pity followed by sharing the driver’s pride in what he’s doing. But there’s nothing to pity. I don’t feel inferior to other people, despite losing my legs. I just need a different way to arrive at the same point. What makes the difference is up here,” he asserted, tapping his head. “It doesn’t matter if the controls are operated by hand or foot, because up here is where it all comes from.”
Those laps geared Zanardi up to drive a BMW 320i at Monza, Italy, in the last round of 2003’s European Touring Car Championship. He was very nervous-jousting in a sedan was a completely new experience after racing nothing but single-seaters, from karts to Formula 1 and those triumphant CART seasons. Having only two days to practice made Monza more of a challenge than the Lausitzring.
The BMW was damaged in a first-corner, first-lap accident, but the race was run in two parts, and he was able to start the second leg from the back of the grid. After finishing seventh, he told a reporter, “Taking part isn’t enough. I believe I’m good enough to win with a competitive car.”
Daniela’s name drifted back into the conversation: “She knows what driving means to me, and she knows that some activities are far more and far less dangerous than motor racing. We are philosophical, because my accident involved a great deal of bad luck. The fact that everybody talks about it tells you how unusual it was. That sort of bad luck is unlikely to happen again.”
Zanardi finished his coffee, looked out over the wind-whipped harbor, and talked about his beloved boat with its twin 800-horsepower Caterpillar engines. Then he reached for his walking sticks, smiled, and said, “I will be driving a BMW in this year’s European Touring Car Championship. If you survive being struck by lightning, you don’t avoid the risk of being struck again by spending the rest of your life at home.”