Every now and then Alex Zanardi has a chance encounter with someone who reminds him there's never any reason to feel sorry for himself, not that he ever had during his two vastly different lifetimes: the one with legs, and the other as a double-amputee.
There was once a brief meeting in a hospital with a fan who talked Formula One and Ferrari with him over a cup of coffee. When he saw the man later that day, sobbing and holding a small child, Zanardi offered him comfort.
The man was crying tears of joy. His daughter, born without legs, had been fitted for her first pair of prosthetics that day. When the technician asked for her shoes to set the balance, the father had none. He'd rushed off to purchase his daughter's first pair of shoes and was overcome with emotion by the simple errand.
"The next time I found myself alone in front of a mirror I said, 'You never dare complain about what happened to you,'" Zanardi said.
Only Zanardi has never complained, not even in the immediate moments after he awoke in a hospital room in Germany without his legs.
Both had been severed in a horrific crash during a 2001 race at EuroSpeedway Lausitz, four days after the Sept. 11 attacks, a weekend in which CART was the only U.S.-based sports league to compete as scheduled. Zanardi was a two-time CART champion recently returned from a second stint in F1 and had plowed through the field to lead laps for the first time since he'd left the series after his 1998 title.
The crash occurred when Zanardi spun his car after a pit stop and he was hit by another driver. Both legs were severed at impact, blown to pieces and part of a debris field that went as far as the eye could see.
"It looked like a bomb blast, I wasn't even sure where the crash scene was and when I got to him, I remember the first thing I said is, 'Where are his legs?'" recalled Dr. Terry Trammell, an orthopedic surgeon and member of the series' renowned safety team. "It was essentially a war injury, one that is not survivable."
Blood poured out of Zanardi's body onto the track and Trammell frantically tried to fashion tourniquets. He used Zanardi's firesuit on one leg and a safety crew member handed Trammell his belt for the other. The Italian driver, 34 at the time, went into cardiac arrest on the helicopter ride to Berlin. There he was rushed into surgery and spent days in a medically induced coma before learning the extent of his injuries.
"Everybody probably thought when I woke up I was going to ask myself, 'How the hell am I going to live with no legs?'" Zanardi said. "And I simply asked myself, 'How the hell am I going to do all the things I have to do with no legs?'"
Now 52, Zanardi has seized every moment in the 17 years since and will cross off yet another remarkable achievement this weekend at Daytona International Raceway when he competes in the prestigious Rolex 24 at Daytona endurance race. He will race for the first time without prosthetics, using a steering wheel designed for him by BMW that allows him to drive with hand levers.
Zanardi was an established racing superstar before his accident and his accomplishments since transcend sports. An inspirational figure with indomitable spirit, he designed his own prosthetics — he jokes he made himself taller — and learned to walk again. Then he returned to racing in touring cars. After that came hand cycling, a class victory in the New York City Marathon and four gold medals spanning two Paralympic Games.
For good measure, he took up triathlons and in has gone under the 9-hour mark in several Iron Man competitions. Zanardi uses a handbike for the cycling portion and a wheelchair for the running portion.
"He's a great champion, a hero, a role model. I mean, where do you stop?" said former teammate and close friend Jimmy Vasser. "The things that he continues to do to show the way how to live your life every day — he probably wasn't here for a minute of this life, but he came back and he just continues to inspire everyone he comes into contact with."
Zanardi by nature is both affable and exuberant, and his infectious air of positivity has made him the shining star at an event stacked with some of the biggest names in racing. Almost everyone in the field watched video of Zanardi and his teammates practicing the driver change earlier this month, a choreographed exercise he has perfected. Team RLL can complete the switch, which includes swapping the steering wheel, in less than 15 seconds.
"It started at 30-second driver changes and above, then got it down to 14 seconds. It's amazing how he can actually get in quicker in the car than I can," said teammate Jesse Krohn. "He's super positive and never lets things hold him down. He's always finding a way to make things happen. It took time to find a way that suits him. What he can do on track and off track, he doesn't have a disability."
The race has become a reunion with old friends and a perpetual meet-and-greet with the upcoming stars of motorsports.
Zanardi zips around the paddock on an electric chair and is consistently stopped by racers eager for a minute of his time and a selfie as a souvenir. There are four other drivers in the Rolex field who last shared the track with Zanardi in that race in Germany in 2001. Others have only heard of his feats, both before and after the accident. Zanardi's 1996 pass of Bryan Herta in the corkscrew of the Laguna Seca, California, road course is considered one of the most magnificent in racing history, and he's recognized as the creator of the post-race victory doughnuts most NASCAR drivers do now.
British driver Katherine Legge said she's asked for only two autographs in her entire life — Phil Collins as a child, then Zanardi at an industry event several years ago. John Edwards, one of his teammates in this race, received Zanardi's autobiography for Christmas when he was 13.
"I think you learn a lot more about life from Alex than you learn about tips and tricks from racing," said Edwards, who is 27. "This guy, in my mind, was a legend and had gone on to do a lot of incredible things. Even after his accident."
When Zanardi first entered CART in 1996, as the teammate alongside Vasser at Chip Ganassi Racing, the two became lifelong friends as they won a combined 23 races and three consecutive series championships. Vasser remembered asking Zanardi about his interests and was surprised that "Rocky," about the underdog Italian-American boxer from Philadelphia, was his favorite movie.
"That says a lot, though, about his strengths, right? I asked him why because 'Rocky' isn't exactly the deepest movie," Vasser said. "He said, 'No! Rocky was very smart, very clever.' But that says it all, Alex ever since I've known him, he's just never given up. He's an animal, a lion."
All the praise for Zanardi has at times embarrassed him over the last month as he's listened to friends share their favorite stories about him. Most are about his humor, or the way he tells a story with intricate details and a touch of exaggeration, and of course, about the way he's inspired each and every one of them.
Zanardi, showing a hint of bashfulness, considers every step "another chapter in a fairy tale of a life."
"Disabilities are a very relative condition, it is something that defines a situation, but if you can't jump over the problem then you can certainly go around it," Zanardi said. "We all are limited in that none of us can fly and none of us can run faster than some animals, but we figure out a way to go to Tokyo if we have to, right? Or we run faster than an animal with a race car.
"Of course I have no legs, which doesn't help, but I'm here and I just try to deliver the best I can."