Go back to 2001 and take a look at who members of the motorsports community thought were the best drivers in the world.
Chances are, CART — now known as INDYCAR — driver Alex Zanardi was at the top of the list.
Tragically, Zanardi lost both of his legs in a racing accident then, but he’ll compete in the Rolex 24 at Daytona for the first time on January 26-27.
The date was September 15, 2001, and Zanardi was competing at EuroSpeedway Lausitz in Germany. A violent crash resulted in having both of his legs amputated. Following the crash, Zanardi worked to recover and not only continued racing, but took up hand cycling. In the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics, he won a combined six medals – four gold medals and two silver medals.
Zanardi also continued racing. With a no-quit attitude and a strong backing from BMW, he has been able to race with the assistance of specially modified prosthesis. The kicker? Zanardi designed and built the hand controls himself. Between 2005 and 2009 he won four World Touring Car Championships and is ready to make his first start in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
“It’s difficult to explain by emotions leading up to the Rolex 24 at Daytona,” Zanardi said. “It’s exciting to be driving a BMW race car. I’m here, and it’s extremely special. It’s a unique opportunity that I have to compete in Daytona and to see so many old friends too.”
Zanardi, who will turn 53 this year, knows just how complicated the cars are and that he faces an even tougher challenge having to use hand controls to pilot his race car.
“These cars are complicated with all the electronics inside them, and all I have to work with is my hands,” Zanardi said with a laugh. “Our lives as drivers are more complicated because we have so many instruments to try to deliver the best performance. I’m used to just a few switches. Now, I have more to deal with and my hands are all I can use to drive the car and shift, etcetera. I hope I can be a fast learner and support my team with a sufficient performance to not let them down.”
Zanardi, who began testing the BMW M8 GTE that he’ll pilot for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in December, is able to change gears with the simple touch of a button. On the steering wheel, he moves through the different gears. His right hand breaks and downshifts.
The race checks off a bucket-list item for Zanardi and although it is currently a one-off, he doesn’t guarantee that it will be last race of his career.
“This race is something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “I can’t say for sure that it’ll be the last race of my career. In 2009, I really started focusing on cycling, and now racing is just something I still do on the side. I don’t think I’d have sufficient energy to compete at the level that it takes to compete for an entire championship, but an event like the Rolex 24 at Daytona is fascinating to me.”
Will we see the inspirational driver back in a race car in 2019, or will he officially hang up the helmet following the 57th Rolex 24 at Daytona? He uses an interesting analogy – one involving a cat and mouse – to explain his feelings.
“If you ask me if I want to drive a car, it’s like asking a cat if he likes the mouse,” said Zanardi. “The answer is yes. We’ll see what happens down the road. BMW offered me a great opportunity, and we’re taking things one step at a time and just focusing on this event.”