DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – Alex Zanardi’s motorized wheelchair is fast. Really fast.
After he zoomed up a ramp to the dais in the media center Thursday morning at Daytona International Speedway, Zanardi came to a sudden stop while making the sounds of screeching tires.
“I have a schedule to keep,” he joked, smiling broadly.
He also has a story to tell. Zanardi’s presence at the 57th Rolex 24 this weekend goes far beyond the usual nuts-and-bolts news about an annual endurance race that brings together some of the best racers in the business. He is the story of the race, and he’s happy to talk about it.
“As far as talking, I’m a pretty competitive dude,” he said. “It’s yet to be seen whether I can be competitive behind the wheel. But I think I am. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
Zanardi was 34 years old when he lost both legs in a crash at a Champ Car race in 2001. Now 52, he has won multiple gold medals for handcycling in the Paralympic Games, returned to competitive racing with a specially equipped car and has written books detailing his journey.
When the race begins Saturday afternoon, Zanardi will make his most significant motorsports statement since the accident. That explains in part why he’s the most popular narrative of the weekend – bigger even than two Formula One stars with connections to INDYCAR, Fernando Alonso and Rubens Barrichello.
Zanardi is aware of the significance, mostly by way of others’ reactions.
“I really felt a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of sincere participation of people in this adventure of mine,” Zanardi said. “But I wasn’t around Fernando or Rubens or other big stars of this race the entire time, so I don’t know how anticipated the arrival was from the fans. I can only thank the fans for being so nice and so supportive of me and showing me how happy they are to have me around.”
Zanardi’s car, a BMW M8 GTE prepped and fielded by BMW Team RLL – the same Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing outfit that runs two cars in the NTT IndyCar Series – features custom-built throttle, brake and gearshift controls that allow Zanardi to drive with only his hands. He’ll share the car with Jesse Krohn, John Edwards and Chaz Mostert in the GT Le Mans class.
The throttle is a ring lever on the steering column, the brakes are controlled by a lever to Zanardi’s right. Upshifting and downshifting can be accomplished on the steering wheel and brake lever. The movements are difficult to master, but Zanardi has been competing in similar cars for more than 15 years.
In 2003, he returned to Lausitzring in Schipkau, Germany, the site of his crash, to drive a specially equipped Indy car and complete the 13 laps he didn’t finish two years earlier. In 2004, Zanardi raced a full season in the World Touring Car Championship. He tested an F1 car for BMW Sauber in 2006 and has been competing for BMW in sports car racing since 2014.
After the Rolex 24, Zanardi isn’t sure where his motorsports career will lead.
“I’m not looking forward to ending this great adventure,” he said. “I’m actually looking forward to living through this great adventure, and then we’ll see. My life has been surprising me with many things happening. … I’m not anxious to already prepare for a new adventure. I’m actually very happy to do what I’m doing.”
His longtime friends are happy, as well. A photograph of an emotional meeting with Barrichello and Alonso (above) went viral Wednesday night, as did an in-car video of Zanardi demonstrating how he operates the car. (The video below is courtesy of RACER.com.)
If nothing else, Zanardi is driven to compete. He commandeered a handcycle to gold and silver medals at the 2012 London Paralympic Games, then did it again in 2016 at the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics. His immediate goal after the Rolex 24 is to begin training for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
Asked about his chances of winning gold again, Zanardi resorted to more humor.
“It’s like you buying a lottery ticket and saying, ‘I’m planning to buy a house in Hawaii because I’m going to win $10 million,’” Zanardi said. “I am planning to go to Tokyo, but I am going to be 53 later this year. Some of my opponents, they are half of my age.”
The Rolex 24 field includes five current NTT IndyCar Series drivers (Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon, Colton Herta, Simon Pagenaud and Alexander Rossi) plus three more scheduled to race this year (Fernando Alonso, Helio Castroneves and Ben Hanley). Including Zanardi and Barrichello, there are 18 other drivers with Indy car races on their resumes driving this weekend.
Track record falls in Rolex 24 qualifying
Track records were expected in Thursday afternoon’s qualifying for Saturday’s race, and it played to script. Oliver Jarvis captured the pole position in the No. 77 Mazda Team Joest DPi with a lap of 1 minute, 33.685 seconds. It broke the 26-year-old record held by PJ Jones, the former Indy car driver and son of 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones.
Team Penske’s Acuras qualified second and third. Ricky Taylor ran second and will team with Castroneves and Rossi in the race. Juan Pablo Montoya, the two-time Indy 500 winner and 1999 CART champion, qualified third and counts Pagenaud among his teammates.
New INDYCAR team DragonSpeed was fastest in the LMP2 class and 10th overall. Hanley, slated to drive five NTT IndyCar Series races this season, is among the team’s four drivers at Daytona.
GT Daytona qualifying was led by Via Italia Racing driver Marcos Gomez in a Ferrari 488 GT3. His teammates include Victor Franzoni, who finished fifth in the 2018 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship.
Altogether, eight teams with connections to the NTT IndyCar Series are entered in this year’s Rolex 24. The race begins at 2:35 p.m. ET Saturday and will air in a combination of NBCSN, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app until its conclusion Sunday.