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Catching Up with Alex Zanardi on the Eve of the 2019 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona

We speak to the ex CART Indy-car champ, Paralympic gold medalist, and BMW factory race driver.

No one much wanted to run the CART Indy-car race at Germany’s Lausitzring on September 15, 2001, just four days after 9/11, but it went on anyway. Ex-Formula 1 driver and two-time CART champ Alex Zanardi was having one of his best outings in years when he spun on cold tires exiting the pits and was broadsided by Alex Tagliani. The Italian, now 52, lost both legs and three-quarters of his blood. He survived and went on to win gold medals in Paralympic handcycle competition, and this weekend he will race for BMW in the GTLM class at the 2019 Rolex 24 at Daytona, the opening round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. We spoke to him just prior to the race.

Automobile Magazine: Do you still have pain from your Indy-car crash?

Alex Zanardi: No, I am fine. But at my age, every year gets harder. Cycling in the Paralympics, I’ll be facing men in their twenties. But you lose in some ways, gain in others.

How did you survive that crash?

I am here because of a lot of people, one in particular. Luck has a name: It’s [then CART medical director] Dr. Steve Olvey. He sent people to research all the local medical facilities in advance. I was in very bad shape, bleeding like a fountain. He knew that by helicopter I could be at the hospital in Dresden in 27 minutes, or in a fully equipped one in Berlin in 55. He knew if I went to Dresden, they would lose me. He sent me to Berlin. Then he waited. And 57 minutes later, they called him and told him I was still alive. Everyone was great. It was not a miracle, it was just a f***ing great effort.

We thought you were dead.

I was. My heart stopped seven times and I was given last rites. I was still alive after 48 hours, and I was told that was a very good sign. But they wondered, when they turned the key back on and I was brought out of the coma, what would be left of the old Alex? But everyone handled it beautifully. So many people. Dario Franchitti drove my wife, Daniela, to the hospital. He said, “I’ll get you there in no time!” She told him, no, we just need to get there. Ashley Judd was his fiancée then, she and Daniela were very close. Tony Kanaan, Max Papis, so many people.

You are racing in this year’s Rolex 24 for Bobby Rahal and Team RLL in a new BMW M8 GTE in the tough GT Le Mans class—you could actually win this race.

I’m happy being part of such a great team. I knew BMW would only support a top-class organization—so professional, so dedicated, and so hungry to try and deliver a good result. I’m proud to be part of it, but there’s pressure, I’ve got to perform on the same level as my teammates.

You’ve driven and won before with your prosthetic legs, which you helped design. This time you are sharing the car with three drivers who have legs, and you will be driving with no legs, shifting and accelerating with a special steering wheel that you will snap onto the steering column when you get in the car. Why not use your legs?

In reality we started to study a way BMW could get me into condition to be a better driver, and find a way to take the car around the track without my prosthetic legs. We were hoping it might be a big plus. It wasn’t. It is a huge plus. I can get in and out faster than my teammates. I could drive it on my own for the entire race if the rules allowed!

Will it be dependable?

That is a problem we have addressed. Any time you change something, you take a chance something will break. If we change out the steering wheel during a driver change in a rush and damage something, that’s a problem another team wouldn’t have. So far in practice I have done three double stints with no issues.

You had an encounter with ex-F1 champion Fernando Alonso, who is also racing here at Daytona.

I found myself sitting alongside him. I asked, “Are you a driver?” He said, “Yes.” I asked, “Are you any good?” He said he was pretty good. Funny—it was exactly the same question I was asked in an elevator yesterday by an elderly woman.

As a child in Bologna, you built a kart out of spare parts, and that was it: You knew what you wanted to do. Would you, and your parents, follow that same path if you knew what would happen in Germany?

If my dad had a crystal ball, I think he would have still tried to give me what life unfortunately multiplied by a thousand times to give me the chance to become the best person I could be.

After the crash, what was your mental state?

Of course, it would be nice to do these same things with legs, but what started in the hospital as one pretty big “holy shit!”—I didn’t think about how I would get through life with no legs, but rather how I would do all the things I have to do with no legs. There was this odd sense of curiosity, knowing I would have to find a way. You can’t stop things from happening but as long as you stay alive, life has this bright fantasy of what is to come, to turn what happens into something positive.

Indianapolis is a special place for all racers, and you were honored like a superstar when you returned a few years ago.

In 2013 [my former car owner] Chip Ganassi invited me to come to the Indy 500. It was very special for me, I had been driving in the World Touring Car Championship, winning races, I had tested an F1 car, and I told my wife, maybe I’ll call Chip. She said, “Yes, you call Chip, I’ll call my lawyer.” Two weeks later I was hosting a show on TV, and a representative of the European space program was on. She said afterward that she and some of her colleagues had been talking, and they were wondering if I would be interested in being the first disabled person to go into space. I told my wife and she said, “Tell me more about Chip and the Indy 500!” So I know if I want to do the Indy 500, I just have to mention the space program to her!

Would you like to do the Indy 500?

Of course I would love to do Indy, but I’m not dying if it doesn’t happen.