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Zanardi Finally Gets What He’s Owed At Indy

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 25 2013

Former driver Alex Zanardi, Chip Ganassi and 'Old Midnight' on the bricks at Indy. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Zanardi finally got the bonus he negotiated with team owner Chip Ganassi nearly two decades ago.

The two-time Champ Car champion, who survived the loss of both legs in a race crash in Germany in 2001 and has gone on to even greater triumphs in his life, was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Friday for the presentation of the car in which he made the greatest pass of his racing career and arguably one of the greatest in the history of the sport.

In the final race of his rookie season in 1996, Zanardi was trailing Brian Herta on the last lap at Laguna Seca heading toward the famed “Corkscrew’’ turn; a blind, downhill, left and right curve. Herta thought the race was his until Zanardi shocked everyone by veering into the dirt and passing the leader on the outside, a move that was later banned by series officials as too dangerous.

It was the final punctuation of a Rookie of the Year season and gave Zanardi, who came into the American series as a virtual unknown, a new cachet.

“It was a lot of fun that day, and a controversy as well,’’ he said. “That probably changed my life.

“I was very lucky that day,’’ Zanardi added. “But that pass changed the perception of me as a race driver. And it gave me confidence to do the things I needed to do for my career.’’

The next year, Ganassi offered Zanardi a large cash bonus if he won the championship.

“Our agreement was made on a napkin at a restaurant,’’ the 48-year-old Italian explained. “At the Christmas party that year, Chip reminded me that he owed me a lot of money. I said, `What are you going to give me if I win the championship again next year?’

“He asked me, `What do you want?’ I said, `my car, Old Midnight.’ All these years later, he called and said, `You still want the car?’ I said, `Yes. For sure.’ It looks better now that it did then.’’

The car known as “Old Midnight’’ because of all the late-night, last-minute repairs that had to be made to it in its heyday, has been completely restored by the Target Chip Ganassi team. The red No. 4 looks good enough to lead another race right now.

He won’t be driving it any time soon, but Zanardi, who has an engineering background, has not let his physical handicap slow him down a bit.

Since his recovery, he has worked on and improved the prostheses he uses for legs, returned to racing, competing in the FIA World Touring Car Championship for BMW between 2003 and 2009 and, bowing to his age, switched sports.

Zanardi took up handbiking, a form of paralympic cycling. He represented Italy in the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London, winning gold medals in the individual H4 time trial and the individual H4 road race, followed by a silver medal in the mixed H1-4 team relay.

Just about everyone Zanardi meets immediately considers the loquacious Italian a friend and he found himself surrounded by friends at the speedway, hugging the men and kissing the women.

Zanardi has no time for regrets, but he remembers most fondly the times spent with his team, the people he always referred to as “my boys.’’

“The races were wonderful, but the best times were back at the shop after the race with my friends, my boys,’’ he said.

Because of the split between CART and the then-Indy Racing League, Zanardi never competed at Indy. But Friday was not his first visit to the famed speedway.

“I once paid $1 and rode around the track in the tourist bus,’’ Zanardi said, grinning. “It was fun, but not very fast.’’

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 25 2013
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