With the Olympics over, we move on to the Paralympics and there are many great stories to be told ahead of the games; there’s likely to be plenty of amazing stories created too, but one story unrivalled in its drama is that of Alessandro Zanardi.
Zanardi will take to the Brands Hatch racing circuit over the coming weeks as part of Team Italia’s para-cycling squad – a familiar circuit to the former F1 and C.A.R.T racer.
The Doughnut King
Most motorsport fans will know him as Alex Zanardi ‘The Doughnut King’, the charismatic star of the C.A.R.T series in the late 90s whose aggressive overtaking, never say die attitude and pleasant nature made him a fan-favourite on and off the track.
Arriving in America following a stop-start F1 career that promised much but never delivered he rebuilt his reputation as a highly skilled driver, eventually returning to the F1 circuit.
His driving prowess is exemplified by ‘The Pass’, a move Zanardi made on Bryan Herta at Laguna Seca Raceway’s notorious ‘Corkscrew’ corner which became the stuff of legends for race fans.
To set the scene if you’ve never seen the Corkscrew, it’s a corner that drops left and then careers down hill to the right. It has practically no run off should you make an error and if you got the corner wrong it could have lethal consequences,only three years after ‘The Pass’, the talented Uruguayan Gonzalo Rodriguez would lose his life at the same corner.
Using a controlled but fearless style, Zanardi won the C.A.R.T championship in 97 and 98 whilst dominating the series in the process and had the attention of the F1 paddock through his performances, but he had his heart set on a move to Williams following a meeting with Frank Williams.
His return was as frustrating as his first attempt, but his hunger to race wouldn’t allow him to quit. After a disastrous season with Williams, he found a race-seat with a familiar face; the fledgling team of his former engineer Mo Nunn. It was a trying year for the partnership in the early races of 2001 and by both Nunn and Zanardi’s high standards it didn’t live up to expectations.
Saturday the 15th of September 2001
With the world still reeling from the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the American based series was making it’s first trip to Europe to race in Germany. In the wake of the attacks C.A.R.T. renamed the race, the “American Memorial”, and it was a sombre occasion.
As the race shaped up Zanardi was in the battle for the lead having worked his way through the field. It appeared that the real Alex had shown up and was looking at possibly claiming the team a much needed victory. Zanardi made his final pit-stop with 13 laps to go it looked like he would finally claim that win that had eluded him since returning. Fate had other ideas however.
As Zanardi exited the pits and took to the warm up lane to build up speed before returning to the race track, he spun. Watching the video you’ll see his car spin helplessly and crawl up the banking of the oval. Then BANG! There was a sickening crunch as Zanardi’s car was T-Boned in one of the biggest recorded impacts in motorsport history. The front of Zanardi’s car disintegrated as it was pierced through by the nose cone of Alex Tagliani’s car.
The impact threw shards of carbon fibre into the air and Zanardi’s car rebounded up towards the wall. Zanardi went from a battle for the victory to a battle for his life. On first viewing of the accident Dr. Steve Olvey thought they had possibly just seen their first double fatality in the series, such was the severity of the accident as was detailed in his excellent autobiography Rapid Response.
The first medical car was on the scene in just 19 seconds. What they found was a horrific scene. Zanardi’s legs had been amputated by the impact and he was losing blood at a staggering rate due to both femoral arteries having been severed in the accident. When the second safety truck arrived near the scene; Dr. Terry Trammell actually struggled to get to Zanardi’s car as he slipped on the mixture of blood and racing car fluids.
Zanardi had lost the majority of his body’s blood. Michael Andretti who drove past the scene talked of it looking like a lawn sprinkler as Zanardi’s car was coming to a stop such was the pace that Zanardi was haemorrhaging. Ingenuity from Trammell at the scene led to them using belts as makeshift tourniquets to help stem the blood flow.
As they finally got Zanardi in an ambulance. Trammell radioed to Olvey to advise him of the situation. “This is bad Steve, really bad! Both legs are gone.” Upon being asked if anything was salvageable Trammell answered, “No, there’s nothing left. His legs are in pieces!”
Trammell and Olvey attended to him with the local doctors who were there to assist with medical emergencies at the track care centre. They checked his vitals which were erratic at this point. They tried to replenish the lost blood using a saline solution to try help stabilise Zanardi, it was a miracle that he’d survived at this point.
There was no history of anyone surviving such injuries as usually a victim would bleed out in mere minutes; long before critical care could be received. Zanardi was then placed in a medical helicopter to fly to Berlin but not before a near 15 minute further wait before Dr. Olvey learned they were still on the tarmac much to his horror. He grabbed the pilot’s collar; pointed to the sky and screamed the only German word he knew “Schnell, schnell!” (Quick, Quick!)
Zanardi arrived in the hospital alive, his heart had stopped numerous times and just 59 minutes after the initial impact Zanardi was on an operating table.
He’d lost 75% of his total blood volume. After several hours in the operating room Zanardi was placed in an Intensive Care Unit. He was put in a chemically induced coma to try assist with the brain swelling that had occurred due to the accident. As Alex clung to life, the other racer involved in the accident, Alex Tagliani, struggled with the situation in the same hospital. Amazingly Tagliani came out of the accident largely unscathed bar the mental burden of the crash that he felt.
At the time the doctors were unsure if Zanardi’s left leg would be suitable for a prosthetic limb due to the amputation being just below the hip. Zanardi’s condition improved steadily whilst in the induced coma and it was decided that he should come out of the coma.
His wife Daniela insisted that she be the one that told him of the amputations. Upon hearing the grim news, Alex’s manner and response was not one that many would anticipate and show’s the fortitude in the rare kind of man Zanardi is.
“That’s OK,” he said. “As long as I still have you and Nicolo, everything will be just fine.”
Just a few months later Zanardi was taking his first public steps at various motorsport award shows. But Zanardi wasn’t happy just to turn up and wave at well-wishers.
Return to racing
In 2003 he returned to the Lausitzring to complete the final 13 laps of that fateful race in a specially adapted hand-controlled Reynard racing car. He’d lost none of his speed. In fact if he’d raced that weekend; his fastest lap would have qualified him 5th for that year’s C.A.R.T race at the track.
The following year he made a full-time return to racing in touring cars and in 2005 he then claimed his first victory in the series in Germany. In 2006 he would claim another touring car victory and also get an opportunity to test a BMW Sauber F1 car with hand controls much to his delight. There would be a further two victories in touring cars prior to an announcement that he would retire from touring cars at the end of 2009.
By then his attention had turned towards a new challenge, para-cycling. Having taken part in the New York Marathon in 2007 and coming 4th, despite only four weeks of training. Zanardi set his sights on becoming a Paralympian. In 2009 he was competing competitively in the Para-Cycling Road World Championships. He was targeting a place on the Italian team for London 2012. As he trained more his performances continued to improve despite his age.
In 2011 Zanardi was victorious in the New York Marathon at his fourth attempt. The victory marking his greatest success to date in his new chosen sport.
He was officially added to the Italian Paralympics team in March and will now return to the familiar stomping ground of Brands Hatch racing circuit in his attempt to claim Paralympic Gold and add another chapter to an already exceptional story.