Motor racing legend Alex Zanardi’s story is nothing short of extraordinary. After losing both his legs in a crash, it took him just two years to make a comeback. The former Formula 1 driver has since taken up hand-cycling and marathon to world-class level. With his sights now set on the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, he also runs a successful business as a motivational speaker and has several charities.
It was 15 September 2001 and Alessandro “Alex” Zanardi was leading the race with just 13 laps to go when he lost control of his car and spun into a crash that resulted in the loss of both his legs. At the time, the Italian motor racing legend could not have imagined describing the accident as an opportunity, but he has come to see it as the catalyst for all he is doing now.
The accident was probably the greatest opportunity of my life.
“When I lost my legs, that didn’t present itself like a great occasion to make my life better,” he says, his eyes smiling. “But in fact it did, because all the things I’m doing these days are directly related to my new condition. So I think I can call what happened probably the greatest opportunity of my life.”
From dustbin wheels to Formula 1
Zanardi’s story starts in Bologna in 1966. Demonstrating early drive, he spent his childhood building carts from dustbin wheels, old pipes, and anything else he could lay his hands on. At 13, he started racing, and within a decade, he had joined the Italian Formula 3 series. He later tested for Formula 1 teams, driving for Minardi, Benetton, and Lotus variously between 1991 and 1994.
The perky Italian signed as a Formula 1 driver again in 1999, after winning the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) series in the United States back-to-back in 1997 and 1998. The car manufacturer Honda was so impressed that it built a commemorative Alex Zanardi Edition Acura NSX to recognise his CART achievements. Fans went wild for the man inside the helmet though, delighted by the doughnut-shaped patterns he would drive to celebrate winning a race.
Things did not end in doughnut driving at the American Memorial 500 CART race in Lausitz, Germany. It was here that Zanardi’s car ploughed to destruction. Hours of surgery saved the racing star’s life, but his brute strength of will and glass-half-full attitude helped him thrive in his new condition. He set about an ambitious rehabilitation programme, designing and building custom legs that would be suitable for racing, and within just two years had made a comeback. He competed for BMW Team Italy-Spain in the FIA World Touring Car Championship from 2003 to 2009, driving a specially adapted car and earning four wins. One of his first forays back onto the track was to drive 13 ceremonial laps at Lausitz, the fastest of which would have qualified him for that year’s race.
Giving something back
The former Formula 1 star is now focusing on giving back. He has co-authored two memoirs, shares his experiences as a motivational speaker, and has launched several charity projects. Among them is The BIMBINGAMA Association, which makes artificial limbs for children who have undergone amputations and do not have access to healthcare. “I see this as a sort of a duty, to pay back some of the fortunes that I received through the course of my life,” he says, referring to the generous donations he received following his accident. “I would call it a privilege to be in that position. You never do enough, but of course you have to try to do what you can and that is what I am doing.”
Life has a bright fantasy and you have to try to serve.
Life’s bright fantasy
There is of course an enduring pull to the fast lane. At 53, Zanardi is as quick and strong as ever – albeit on a track of a different kind. After retiring from motor racing, he took up hand-cycling with the goal of representing Italy at the 2012 Paralympics in London.
Not one to do things by halves, he qualified for the Games, came home with two Gold medals and created one of the most iconic photographs of the event – when he lifted his hand-cycle above his head after winning Gold. Four years later, at Rio 2016, he won a Gold and a Silver medal. He has also won marathons and triathlons around the world, competing in hand-cycle and wheelchair categories.
“If someone would have forecast my participation in the Olympic Games when I still had legs, when I was only a race-car driver, I would have asked him, ‘hey, what have you sniffed? I am a race-car driver. I got nothing to do with the Olympic Games’,” he quips. “Life has a very bright fantasy and you have to try to serve.”
His sights are now set on the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020, and after that, who knows? “Maybe the next project will be a new book, I don’t know,” he says, laughing. One thing is for sure: Alex Zanardi’s story is far from told.