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Tuesday, September 18
Tragedy hits one of racing's nice guys
By Jerry Bonkowski
ESPN.com

When I heard the tragic news that former CART champion Alex Zanardi was critically injured in Saturday's American Memorial 500 in Germany, I couldn't help but ask why such a horrible thing could happen to one of the gentlest individuals I've met in this business.

When I first met Zanardi he was a CART rookie in 1996, driving for Chip Ganassi. I was struck by what seemed to be an ever-present smile upon his face. He was a happy-go-lucky sort, peppered with European flair. If he wasn't a race car driver, he could easily have passed for Italian royalty.

Yet at the same time, there was a hint of shyness. I don't know what possessed me to think it, but I coined a private nickname for Zanardi: the "Happy Elf." He looked and acted like an Italian Leprechaun, with a bouncy jingle in every step.

I won't profess to say I knew Zanardi would become one of only two drivers to win back-to-back titles (1997 and '98). I won't even profess to say I knew he would attain greatness or even achieve mediocrity.

But I did know one thing: for however long Zanardi was going to be in CART, he was going to make a lasting impression on everyone he met, from his fellow competitors and other team owners to the media and fans. I doubt if there was anyone who didn't like Alessandro.

Having covered all forms of motorsports for more than 15 years, I have witnessed the alienation, cattiness and petty jealousies among drivers, particularly between CART's American and foreign pilots. More often than not when a fresh foreign face appears on the scene, he's met with icy cool wariness. Perhaps more so in motorsports than any other form of athletics, new guys that travel at 200-mph are immediately scrutinized by their more veteran counterparts. After all, a unprepared rookie is not only messing with the veterans' livelihoods, he's a threat to their lives.

Zanardi got that treatment, but it didn't last long. When his fellow competitors saw his mettle, not to mention his propensity to race "clean," drivers like Jimmy Vasser, Michael Andretti and Paul Tracy quickly welcomed Zanardi into the fold. He had an innate ability that challenged them individually, but also improved the caliber and quality of CART racing exponentially.

Zanardi became one of them. Simply put, this native of Bologna, Italy, was not full of baloney; he was the real deal.

Now, all we're left with is questions. What would have happened if Zanardi had never left CART to go back to try his hand again at Formula One in 1999, only to fall far short and be forced out? Why did Zanardi return to CART this season, driving for Mo Nunn? Why did something so tragic happen to someone so good-hearted? What will Zanardi do once he recovers from his injuries?

Zanardi was a gentleman's gentleman. While his successor, Juan Montoya, was brash and hot-headed, Zanardi was controlled and measured. Former teammate Vasser, who never was as close to Montoya as he was to Zanardi, once jokingly referred to Zanardi as "my brother -- he's from the Italian side of the family." Comparisons were often drawn between Zanardi's even keel and immense talent and that of former CART champ Emerson Fittipaldi.

Now, all is gone for Zanardi other than some fantastic memories. He'll be lucky to ever walk again.

Zanardi's recovery and rehabilitation will be grueling. I'm sure his spirit will falter at times. But, Zanardi has a great deal to look forward to, rather than dwell on what has happened to him. He has a beautiful wife, a handsome son, numerous business interests and enough money in the bank that he can live in comfort for the rest of his days in his new home in Monte Carlo.

But something tells me that once he has recovered, you're going to see Zanardi back on the racing scene. He may become a minority team owner with Nunn or Ganassi, or possibly form his own team. While he won't be able to do many things without his legs, Zanardi still has a super-computer brain that has stored all kinds of racing data that can be transferred to another driver.

Why, given Zanardi's attitude and modern technology, is returning to the driver's seat that far out of question? He might have to use hand/arm controls rather than foot pedals, or he may become adapt with prosthetic legs. While such a thing has never been done, Zanardi has the spirit to try it, and more importantly, succeed.

Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com.

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American Memorial 500 results

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

On the scene
ESPN's Parker Johnstone discusses Alex Zanardi's condition.
wav: 1260 k
Real: 14.4 | 28.8 | 56.6

CART recap
ESPN's Jon Beekhuis voices concern for Alex Zanardi and the decision to race.
wav: 1933 k
Real: 14.4 | 28.8 | 56.6

 
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