DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – During an unusually quiet moment in the media center at Richmond International Raceway in September 2014, the phone rang. It was Alex Zanardi. He’d just been cleared to compete in the famous Ironman World Championship triathlon in Hawaii, and USA TODAY wanted a story. He called as everyone nearby silently typed stories about a NASCAR race.
When the call ended, nobody within earshot needed to ask who had been on the other end of the phone. Zanardi’s voice was loud enough for all to hear. He was enthusiastic, infectious, laughing, telling stories. One might say his call was inspirational.
Everyone but Zanardi, that is. Here’s the lead quote from the story:
“It would be completely wrong and arrogant of me to say that this is what I am, an inspiration to others,” Zanardi said. “Maybe I’m an exceptional solution to other people because exceptional were the problems I had. But during the course of my recovery, I bumped into people with amazing stories, far more amazing than mine.”
It’s difficult to find a more amazing story than Zanardi’s. By now, it’s gone beyond motorsports into the mainstream. In 2001, he lost his legs in a crash during a CART race in Germany. He returned to the same track in 2003 to complete the final 13 laps of the race in a specially equipped car. Since then, he’s raced sports cars professionally for 14 years, the most significant event being Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona sports car race.
Among the inspired are those who will race against him this weekend on Daytona International Speedway’s road course.
“That’s the kind of person he is, right?” said five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon. “He feels very fortunate to have the opportunities he’s had to achieve what he has. He’s also one who knows how to work the situation. He knows what equals results, and he’s never been shy about that. He puts in the hard work, and it seems like there are no limits. He’ll work it out, no matter the situation. He makes the most out of everything, which is pretty cool.”
As he was popularizing the post-victory doughnut spin while claiming two CART championships and 15 victories in three seasons from 1996-98, Zanardi (shown above when reunited with Jimmy Vasser, his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate from the championship days) brought and left magic wherever he went. A catastrophic injury didn’t alter that. The enthusiasm in his 2014 phone call was there in 1999. Only the circumstances had changed.
“Alex just has a way about him; he always did,” said Bobby Rahal, whose BMW Team RLL will field the car Zanardi co-drives this weekend. “He just drew people to him, and he does that even more today. His story is so compelling and so amazing. Here’s a guy who came within inches and seconds of dying, and you see what he’s been able to do today.
“He is an example. If you’ve lost a limb or you’re paralyzed and you think life is over, here’s a guy who’s doing things most healthy people can’t do. He’s an example whether you’ve had an injury or not. Here’s a guy who tells you about life. Here’s a guy who has fought the demons and the things that can get you down and defeated them and gone on to great things. He’s been a tremendous example to people about the human spirit. If that’s not a legacy for people to follow and a legacy for people to look up to, I don’t know what is.”
As people look up to Zanardi, though, he looks up to others.
“Along the course of my rehabilitation, I bumped into a lot of great people who had to overcome very particular problems in their lives without the headlines I normally get in magazines,” Zanardi said Friday. “They embraced their challenge with the same tenacity and the same enthusiasm.
“Every one of us has something, some type of hidden energies that always come out whenever they’re needed. The only difference, maybe, is how rapidly you finally get on top of everything and gain that new mental condition where you say, ‘OK, now it’s time to do what I can. Now it’s time to take every day as a new opportunity to take a small step in the right direction.’ There are people who are stuck longer in that situation where you just ask yourself, ‘Why did it happen to me? Why did I lose my legs?’ I’m just a very lucky guy.”
A few weeks after the Richmond call, Zanardi called again. He’d completed the Ironman, a grueling athletic test that involved 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of handcycling, and 26.22 miles in a specially designed racing wheelchair.
He told of losing his grip on his wheelchair while climbing a hill near Kona as fans cheered for him and called his name, encouraging him to finish. Before the Ironman, Zanardi downplayed the inspirational aspects of his story. Afterward, he found joy in it.
“It warms my heart, no doubt, to inspire people,” he said after finishing the race. “In reality, people see in others what they want to see in themselves. … If they say, ‘Alex, thanks to you I want to make better use of my life,’ this fills me with pride.”
He’s competed in the New York Marathon. He’s designed and built his own prosthetic legs. He’s written books. He’s designed a popular line of go-karts, won multiple gold medals in two Paralympic Games, and has an asteroid named after him. (Seriously. Google "22517 Alexzanardi.") He’s about to begin training for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. He’s voiced a character in the Italian version of the “Cars” animated movie franchise, and he’s participated in the most difficult triathlon in the world.
It wasn’t an easy sell, either. Ironman officials had to be convinced to add Zanardi as a participant. Longtime buddy Tony Kanaan, an Ironman veteran, helped with the sales pitch.
“Honestly, what can he do to impress us anymore? Go to the moon?” Kanaan said then. “Nothing is impossible for Alex. He’s the man. He’s my hero. It’s not like, ‘Look at this now.’ Nothing he does impresses me anymore.”
You might be alone in that opinion, TK. Zanardi is about to impress everyone. One more time.
The green flag for the 24-hour race is set to wave at 2:35 p.m. ET Saturday. Live coverage of the beginning of the race starts at 2 p.m. on NBCSN.