Italian professional racing driver and paracyclist, Alex Zanardi, won the Cart championship in 1997 and 1998 in North America. He also had a less successful career as a Formula One driver.
Zanardi began racing karts at age 13. He built his kart from the wheels of a dustbin and pipes from his father’s work. In 1988, he joined the Italian Formula 3 series, with a fifth place as his highest finish. In 1989, Zanardi took two pole positions and three podiums despite his team’s switching to unleaded fuel, which reduced his car’s engine power.
While competing in the 1993 F1car racing, Zanardi was injured when an elderly motorist collided with his bicycle, knocking him down and running over Zanardi’s left foot. Despite suffering several broken bones, Zanardi raced in Germany, but he spun out and did not finish. Zanardi’s season ended prematurely after he sustained a concussion as a result of a crash in practice for the Belgian Grand Prix.
He again suffered a career-ending accident in his most competitive race of 2001. The crash occurred while Zanardi was leading the race in the closing laps. After a late pit stop, Zanardi on cold tires was attempting to merge back onto the track when he accelerated abruptly, lost control of his car and spun onto the race track into the path of Patrick Carpentier.
Carpentier was able to avoid him, but Alex Tagliani, who was just behind Carpentier at the time, could not and Zanardi’s car was impacted from the side, behind the front wheel, severing the nose of the car. Zanardi lost both legs (one at the thigh and one at the knee) in the impact, Zanardi said “my heart stopped seven times and I was given last rites”, though rapid medical intervention saved his life. This was the end of his open-wheel racing career.
But definitely not the end of his career, as his dissatisfaction with his limitations led him to design and build his own custom legs, to allow him to compare the weight and stiffness of various feet in order to find the ones most suitable for racing. In 2002, Zanardi was honoured, he was given the privilege to wave the checkered flag in Toronto, Canada. In 2003, Zanardi was ready to take to the track again, with the aid of hand-operated brake and accelerator controls.
In 2004, Zanardi returned to racing full-time, driving for Roberto Ravaglia’s BMW Team Italy-Spain in the FIA European Touring Car Championship. In 2005, the series became the World Touring Car Championship by adding two non-European races. On 24 August 2005, Zanardi won his first World Series race, celebrating with a series of trademark “donuts”. He took further wins at Istanbul in 2006 and Brno in 2008 and 2009.
When life chucked him into a wheelchair, he not only returned to the cockpit, driving specially equipped European touring cars, but turned to para-cycling. The results: A pair of Golds and a Silver at both the 2012 (London) and 2016 (Rio) Paralympic Games, along with 10 World Championship wins between 2013-17.
In 2019, at 52, Alex Zanardi made his Rolex 24 debut. Still competing, he hopes to continue to break more grounds.
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