The Best Choice To Drive The Pace Car
Usually, I can come up with my own topics for my posts here – which might explain why some of my efforts here are a little on the lame side. But it’s sometimes tough to come up with new and different things to write about – especially in the offseason. That’s why I was very happy to get an e-mail last week from a regular reader named “Tom”, who had a very good suggestion for a post topic.
I’ll gladly give credit to Tom for the idea. It’s a subject I had heard about, but it never really dawned on me to write about it. Had it not been for Tom, I probably would have gone on some pointless rant about racing clichés, or why Valvoline left their classic IndyCar livery after the 1993 season – for paint schemes that looked like they were drawn out on a cocktail napkin. Come to think of it; that’s not a bad offseason topic at all. Don’t be surprised if I visit that one in the next month or so.
So let’s get right to it. Tom’s suggestion was that I write about a possibility to drive the pace car for the upcoming 101st Indianapolis 500 – Alex Zanardi.
Curt Cavin used to campaign for this back in his days with The Indianapolis Star. I’m not sure his new position with IndyCar allows Curt to publicly campaign for such things, but you know he can try to pull strings internally.
It’s a good thing to campaign for. If my readership of a couple of dozen can make a difference, I’m all for it.
The use of celebrities driving the pace car for the Indianapolis 500 is a relatively new thing. Sure Jim Garner drove it three times in the seventies and eighties, but he was an avid race fan and had portrayed drivers in movies. Normally, any celebrity had some sort of ties to racing or The Speedway. Usually it was a former driver, an automotive industry exec or just a car guy like Jay Leno that was chosen for the honor.
That all changed in 2000, when actor Anthony Edwards was chosen. Aside from playing “Goose” in Top Gun, where he did go very fast, I’m not aware Mr. Edwards had any ties to racing whatsoever. That opened the floodgates. The next year, Elaine Irwin Mellencamp took the wheel to become the first female to pace the field. I couldn’t help but wonder at the time why her much more famous then-husband wasn’t driving it instead.
The following year in 2002, Jim Caviezel drove the pace car. At the time, I said “Who?” Then a couple of years later, he played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. That and driving the pace car were apparently his two crowning achievements in life. Almost fifteen years after driving the pace car, I’m sure most people again are saying “Who?”
As the years went on, the celebrity drivers were a mixture of hits and misses. The hits were Morgan Freeman, Colin Powell, Patrick Dempsey, Jim Harbaugh and – at the time – Lance Armstrong, before we all knew what a scumbag he was. Of course, there have been many drivers interspersed in the rotation since Anthony Edwards first drove in 2000. Emerson Fittipaldi, AJ Foyt, Dario Franchitti, Jeff Gordon and Roger Penske all paced the field in this millennium.
Celebrity misses were Josh Duhamel, Guy Fieri and Robin Roberts. I know that many will scream that Robin Roberts was a great choice. I thought all of the GMA promotion was supposed to bring a ton of new eyeballs to the screen and give ratings a huge bump. Instead, she didn’t move the needle at all.
I’m more of a fan of using people who are celebrities to racing fans. Franchitti, Gordon and The Captain have been the last three choices to drive the pace car and have all resonated with race fans. I’d much rather see someone that race fans appreciate, more than some icon from pop culture. I mean, who would you rather see pacing the field? Rick Mears or Justin Bieber?
But if you want someone who would appeal to the hard core race fan as well as the casual once-a-year fan, I don’t think you could beat the choice of Alex Zanardi.
If there is anyone reading this (aside from my mother) who doesn’t know who Alex Zanardi is – Zanardi was a two-time CART champion, who left CART after the 1998 season for the greener grass of Formula One. Zanardi had already had an unsuccessful stint in F1. He had sporadic appearances before driving for Lotus in 1993 & 1994. When Lotus folded in 1995, Zanardi went sports car racing in 1995 before landing what turned out to be the ride of a lifetime.
Before 1996, Target Chip Ganassi Racing had experienced only two wins, both in 1994 with Michael Andretti. The team was coming off of a strange season in 1995, that saw them expand unexpectedly when Jimmy Vasser’s Hayhoe Racing team folded just before the season. Ganassi took Vasser’s STP sponsorship and paired him alongside newly signed Bryan Herta, who had a disastrous season that produced only two Top-Tens in a seventeen race season. Herta was gone after one season, replaced by Alex Zanardi.
Ganassi was the first to run a Reynard chassis. But for 1996, he paired it with the superb Honda engine and the equally superb Firestone tires. We quickly learned that the Reynard-Honda-Firestone combination was the package of choice for years to come.
Alex Zanardi didn’t win the championship that season. He finished third in a tie-breaker with Michael Andretti for second, while both finished behind Zanardi’s Ganassi teammate, Jimmy Vasser. It took Zanardi half of the season to get used to that type of car and the tracks. Zanardi won no races and his average finish in the first half was 15.9. But in the second half of the season, Zanardi scored three wins and three more podiums, bringing his average finish for the second half down to an impressive 7.1. Had it not been for finishing twenty-sixth at Vancouver, perhaps the savvy Italian could’ve won the championship as a rookie.
The second half of the 1996 campaign showed what was to come. Zanardi dominated the next two seasons, winning the championships both times. He scored five wins in 1997 and six in 1998. In fact, the 1998 season shows that he had fifteen total podiums in the nineteen race season that year. It’s no wonder he was able to parlay that into a ride at Williams in F1. Unfortunately, his foray back into F1 was a disaster and he was on the sidelines for 2000.
Zanardi signed with Mo Nunn for the 2001 season, paired with the up and coming Tony Kanaan. It did not go well. Nunn was running the underpowered Mercedes engine and didn’t come close to having the resources that Chip Ganassi had. Through fourteen races, Zanardi had no podiums and had more than twice as many finishes worse than twentieth (7) as he did in the Top-Ten (3).
The Lausitzring is located in Klettwitz, Germany and was to hold the first of two back-to-back CART races across the pond. After the cars and equipment had already been shipped, the 9-11 took place on the Tuesday before the race. While the NFL, College Football, Major League Baseball and NASCAR all put their respective sports on hiatus for a week – CART chose to run their race overseas. In all fairness, CART was put in a no-win situation. It would be a PR nightmare to run, but a scheduling and financial nightmare if they didn’t. They chose to run and took the heavy criticism for doing so.
I did not watch the race. I remember I had friends in from out of town and we went to an early dinner. There was no football and they were about to leave, so we went to go grab a bite. There was a TV tuned to CNN, who was still covering 9-11. I happened to see the scroll saying something to the effect that driver Alex Zanardi was critically injured in a crash and had sustained life-threatening injuries. With no iPhone or portable internet in those days, that’s all I knew until I got back home.
When I did return home, I saw the video of the crash for the first time. We’ve all seen it and I won’t post it here. For those that don’t know or remember, Zanardi spun while leaving the pits and spun out into the front-straightaway. He was sitting broadside to the oncoming traffic, when he was struck by Alex Tagliani. Zanardi’s car was ripped into two pieces, the lower part of Zanardi’s legs stayed in the front portion of the car, while the rest of his body stayed in the cockpit. He is said to have lost three-fourths of his blood volume and was in grave condition when Dr. Terry Trammel arrived on the scene quickly. Trammel’s efforts and quick thinking are credited with saving Zanardi’s life.
Although Zanardi’s open-wheel career was over, a new chapter in his life had just begun. Ultimately, Alex Zanardi was fitted with prosthetic legs. Not happy with the prosthetics available at the time, Zanardi designed and built his own prosthetic legs.
Alex Zanardi did return to the cockpit of a race car. In 2003, Zanardi drove a specially fitted Reynard for thirteen laps around the Lausitzring, symbolizing the final thirteen laps remaining after his crash. He drove fast enough in his return to qualify fifth on the 2001 grid of his ill-fated race. It wasn’t enough.
Zanardi has raced and won in touring cars since his accident. Always looking for a new challenge, Alex Zanardi took up handcycling. In typical Zanardi fashion, he didn’t just take up handcycling – he attacked it. In 2007, he placed fourth in the New York City Marathon handcycling division. In 2009, he won the Venice Marathon and in 2010, the Rome Marathon. He topped it all with a Gold Medal in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. He recently won a Gold Medal in the H5 category of the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio.
While we marvel at his prowess, Zanardi celebrates but is always looking for the next challenge.
Life can deal the cruelest of blows. What happened to Alex Zanardi in September of 2001 would make the heartiest of souls buckle. I cannot even imagine losing both legs at the age of thirty-four, along with the added shock of almost losing my life in the process.
But fate underestimated Alex Zanardi. He did not die that day in the middle of a race track in Germany. He did lose his legs, but not his spirit. Before his accident, Alex Zanardi always had a smile on his face which symbolized his effervescent personality. He simply loved life. Few drivers loved winning like Alex Zanardi. He originated the celebratory “donuts” as we saw his car spinning on it’s axis as he celebrated every single win with the excitement level of his first.
After his accident and his ensuing recovery – nothing has changed. He tackled the Lausitzring two years later, won in Touring Cars and in handcycling. He celebrates every one of those wins as if he had just won the Indianapolis 500, which he never drove in due to the politics of The Split.
Doug Boles can score major points with fans and even non-fans by asking Alex Zanardi to pace the field of a race he never drove in. The words “hero” and “inspiration” are thrown about too casually in these times. We may admire football players and race drivers, but are they really heroes? In my book, both of these words (and many others) apply to Alex Zanardi.
I’m not one to seek inspiration from a poster, a book or a seminar. At my age, I’ve seen a lot and there’s not a lot out there that can still move or inspire me. But Alex Zanardi is a true inspiration for anyone that feels as if life has dealt them a bad hand. All they need to do is look to see how he led his life before and after his accident.
The Indianapolis 500 is known for a lot of great things. Among them is the platform it can give to anyone involved in it. Not only could the Indianapolis 500 benefit from having Alex Zanardi drive the pace car next May, but many more people can learn Zanardi’s story and benefit.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been over fifteen years since Zanardi’s accident. What’s even harder to believe is what he has accomplished in those fifteen years. The best thing, however, is that the story is still unfolding before our very eyes. Alex Zanardi is now fifty. I can’t wait to see what next great thing he has in store for us. It has been a pleasure to watch his story take shape and I hope that his story can include driving the pace car in the 2017 Indianapolis 500.