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Monday, September 17
Arute: Zanardi fortunate to be alive
By Jack Arute

Alex Zanardi will never race again. His career came to a terrible end in Germany on Saturday when his Reynard hurtled back into traffic and was cut in half by Alex Tagliani's 200-mph car, which turned cruelly into a travelling knife.

Zanardi suffered little success in his first Formula One stint. When Lotus folded its operation in 1995, Zanardi found himself unemployed.

Alex Zanardi won back-to-back CART titles in 1997 and 1998.

Then, he was tapped by Chip Ganassi to fill a seat in the Pittsburgh business tycoon's Target-sponsored car. The union resulted in Zanardi's selection as CART Rookie of the Year, along with three wins and a series-leading six poles.

He ignited interest in CART. His trademark wheel-spinning, rubber-burning donuts following every one of his 15 wins became a staple on sports highlight shows and his infectious smile won him a legion of fans. Like his countryman Roberto Benigini did in Hollywood, winning an 1998 Oscar for Life Is Beautiful, Zanardi won our hearts.

As much as his success established him as an unparalleled champion, he often expressed concerns about oval racing. It was a discipline that tested his resolve. He had seen the effects of 200 mph crashes into concrete barriers. He sat out a CART finale at Fontana after crashing and suffering a concussion.

It was a subject Zanardi cared not to talk about, but it did play a role in his decision to leave CART in 1999 and drive for Williams in Formula One. It was easy to mask his concerns with the cloak of unfinished business.

His F1 return for Williams in 1999 produced no better results than his first stint with Lotus. After being released from his contract, he retired to his family in Monte Carlo and seemed genuinely at peace.

I could tell the lure of friendship would draw him back to America. On several occasions, I had the opportunity to talk to Alex. While he lit up telling me about how quickly little Niccolo was growing, it was apparent he missed the roar of the crowd. When he joined forces with old friend Morris Nunn for this season few were surprised and most were excited.

NASCAR's Jeff Gordon still recalls the first time he met Zanardi in 1997. He and Zanardi were part of that year's IROC field and Gordon told him he was his "hero."

Zanardi laughed and asked, "Why?" Gordon said he watched CART races on TV when he had time, and would see things and say to himself, "I can do that. I can do that."

But, Gordon said, when he saw Zanardi's now-famous "pass" of Bryan Herta at Laguna Seca in 1996, Gordon said he said to himself, "No. I can't do that!"

Zanardi is not one to dwell upon the negative. His exploits behind the wheel were a small part of what defines him.

I remember when he was chasing his second consecutive CART championship. It was not the preemptive thing in his life. His wife had just given birth to his son and Zanardi wrestled with the separation form his family that his racing required.

In the wake of last Tuesday's terrorist attacks, no one is sure what to feel about the tragedy that befell Zanardi. He will recover and live; albeit, a dramatically different life than he previously envisioned.

His 3-year-old son Niccolo still has a dad. His wife still has a husband.

Families of the thousands who remain missing, buried beneath tons of twisted steel and concrete in New York's financial district would trade places with Zanardi without a moment's hesitation.

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The American Memorial results

Zanardi crashes
Alex Zanardi and Alex Tagliani are involved in a devastating collision.
avi: 989 k
Real: 56.6 | ISDN | T1

Zanardi crash
ESPN's John Kernan talks about the career of Alex Zanardi.
Real: 28.8

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