By: Spencer Neff
January 22 2019 | 9:08 AM
Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway will be a monumental race for Alex Zanardi in several aspects. For the two-time CART champion, it will be his first race on American soil in over 17 years.
Zanardi first dazzled racing fans in America during his four years in CART over two stints. With drives in Formula 1 preceding both parts of his CART career, Zanardi was the most dominant driver during his first three years in the series.
Driving for Chip Ganassi Racing from 1996-1998, the popular Italian earned 15 wins and 10 poles in 51 races spanning three seasons. Zanardi also earned the series championship in 1997 and 1998.
Following an unsuccessful 1999 Formula 1 campaign with Williams, Zanardi returned to the states and in 2001, began racing in CART again.
Driving for former engineer Mo Nunn’s team, Zanardi struggled early on. In his first 14 races, Zanardi led no laps and earned just one Top Five finish. His luck appeared to turn around at Lausitzring in Germany, as he led 20 laps and was in contention for the win.
13 laps from the finish, disaster struck. Zanardi spun while leaving pit road and collided on track with another car. The accident caused Zanardi to lose both his legs.
Since that day in 2001, Zanardi has become an inspiration for his remarkable feats. In 2003, he returned to Lausitz to complete the remaining 13 laps from two years earlier.
Zanardi soon returned to racing, doing so in World Touring cars. Zanardi won four races with BMW and even tested a specially-designed Formula 1 car with BMW’s Sauber team.
In 2012, Zanardi represented his home country of Italy in the London Paralympics. Zanardi turned in an inspiring performance, earning two gold and a silver medal in handcycling.
Four years later, Zanardi duplicated his performance at the Rio games. This past September, Zanardi set the world record for the disabled category in the Ironman.
Despite his many accomplishments around the world, Zanardi still views his CART career in special regard. He reflected upon his past and return to America a few weeks ago.
“Finally I am here and so this is very, very special,’’ Zanardi exclaimed, speaking to reporters at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test session earlier this month.
Zanardi will be driving in the GTLM (Le Mans) class, in the No. 24 Team RLL BMW M8 GT. John Edwards, Jesse Krohn and Chaz Mostert will serve as Zanardi’s teammates.
Zanardi has also been equipped with a special steering wheel to accommodate himself and allow his teammates to drive the car as normal.
There will be several connections to Zanardi’s past, adding more intrigue to the weekend as well. Former Ganassi Racing teammate Jimmy Vasser is entering two cars in the GTD (Daytona) class. His car is owned by Bobby Rahal, who competed with Zanardi.
Zanardi’s former car owner, Chip Ganassi, will also enter two cars in the GTLM class.
Racing in the other Team RLL car is IndyCar rookie Colton Herta. Herta’s father Bryan competed against Zanardi in CART as well. Zanardi famously passed Herta for the win at Laguna Seca in 1996, among several on-track battles between the two.
Aside from his competitors, Zanardi also acknowledged how he is looking forward to the opportunity to reconnect with his open-wheel fan base.
“I know that I will be stopped by many fans who remember some of the things I did over in this beautiful country, which definitely gave me the greatest opportunity of my life.”
“To have the opportunity to add a little more, to make that small space in their heart grow, the personal space… I have a unique opportunity and I feel gifted having had the opportunity to compete here in Daytona.”
Many in Daytona are excited to see him race. However, Zanardi hopes that some of the excitement from his competitors subsides during the race.
“I hope that down the road I can change that a little because when everyone is so friendly and they say ‘Wow, Alex it’s so cool to be in the same field with you,’ it’s just because they expect you to be behind,’’ Zanardi quipped.
“And when you get in front, they are not as excited anymore. I hope I can cool some of them down during the race.’’
If Alex Zanardi has proven anything throughout his career, it’s that he will always defy expectations. This Saturday, he hopes to do more of the same.
Header Image by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing