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Alex Zanardi’s comeback through the eyes of longtime friends and rivals

During the first driver change at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, racing legend Alex Zanardi climbs behind the wheel of his team's BMW.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Naturally, Alex Zanardi has few, if any, memories that he cares to recall about the Sept. 15, 2001 crash at Lausitz, Germany, that robbed him of his legs.

But he does have some thoughts on the CART race that permanently altered his life and inadvertently would make him the most inspiring story of today’s Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona nearly two decades later.

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“That’s an episode of my life which for sure was difficult to overcome, no doubt about it,” Zanardi, who will pilot a BMW M8 with hand controls during the 24-hour race at Daytona International Speedway, said Friday about the crash. “But once I managed to solve that problem, for sure that thing happening in my life also gave me the possibility to develop instruments that I would have never developed had it not happened, and these instruments are quite valuable, because they’re not made to overcome a technical problem in making your car go slightly faster, but they remind me every day that life is a wonderful opportunity, no matter what you have.

“Now if you asked me Alex, would you like to go back in time and fix everything, I’d probably say yes, especially if I could live again the last 17 years because it what would be a lot of fun trying to do different things had what happened not had happened, but if you would just say, ‘Alex, would you like to change the outcome of that day and … find yourself today with legs but without knowing how happy or sad you would be,’ having lived the last 17 years in a different condition in comparison to the one you have now, I frankly don’t know whether I would take that change. Because I would also take the chance to wake up not as happy, not as comfortable in my life as I am.”

That the colorful Italian’s perspective somehow turns the devastating wreck into an overwhelming positive is no surprise. In the years since the accident, Zanardi has become a gold medal-winning Paralympian who is planning his run at a third straight Games.

But there are a few others he will be racing against this weekend with vivid viewpoints from that dark day in Germany, which came on the heels of an already difficult week because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

When Alexander Tagliani’s Reynard-Ford plowed full speed into Zanardi’s Reynad-Honda (which was sitting helplessly after a spin), Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Christian Fittipaldi and Townsend Bell also were on the track in the CART Series (which later became Champ Car and merged with IndyCar)

“That weekend was terrible,” Castroneves said on a recent NASCAR on NBC Podcast episode. “A lot of people worried about their families here in the U.S. And then the accident happened.”

Castroneves originally was worried the crash had involved his fellow Brazilian Tony Kanaan, a teammate of Zanardi’s at Mo Nunn Racing. “So I kinda really look who had the accident and when I saw the front of the car, basically half of the car was gone. And I kind of not understood, and saw a lot of debris, which didn’t quite look like a piece of the race car. Well at the time, I didn’t know what it was, but it was part of his body, however that time I did not realize what it was. And I just tried to block it because I didn’t want to look.”

Fittipaldi recalls the voice of his normally calm spotter going up several octaves after the incident.

“What he saw upstairs was something never ever seen before,” said Fittipaldi, who rolled past the postcrash scene a few minutes later. “Probably the whole safety crew was on top of Zanardi’s car. And I remember seeing some blood.”

The most explicit images of the crash for Dixon came when he saw a newspaper the next day at the airport.

“Just how graphic the picture was of like shoes and stuff going through the air and the blood,” he said. “I was surprised they could put that on the front page. That’s the thing I remember the most.”

For Bell, it already would be a memorable weekend because the race marked his IndyCar debut, which he described as “a baptism by fire for a young driver.” The NBC Sports analyst, who is doubling behind the wheel this weekend at Daytona, hadn’t seen Zanardi since the drivers meeting in September 2001 until the Roar before the Rolex test session a few weeks ago.

“The fact that he’s here 18 years later, and he’s here after having won in so many other ways in his life, in motorsports, in wheelchair racing, is just remarkable,” Bell said. “This event will potentially have a great impact on so many of us because he’s here. And he’s going to be here competitively and with the same burning passion that he had as an IndyCar driver. That’s a really powerful thing to be a part of, and I find it hugely inspiring.”

Zanardi already was a compelling figure in racing before the crash. From his 1996 rookie season, which concluded with a breathtaking winning pass on Bryan Herta through the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca, Zanardi’s aggressive style got him sideways with many rivals but earned legions of American fans.

He won back-to-back championships with Chip Ganassi Racing before leaving for an ill-fated season with Williams in Formula One. The crash happened during his first season after returning to CART.

Those who were in Germany hardly expected to race against him again at Daytona.

“I couldn’t be more happy, to be honest,” said Castroneves, who grew to know Zanardi well through their shared attorney, Alan Miller. “ ‘Can’t’ is not in his vocabulary. It does not exist. He’s such an inspiration for so many people. When he was racing, he was already the champion, the guy making moves at The Corkscrew passing Herta on the last lap.

“The guy, it’s amazing. That’s faith, you know. That’s faith and destiny with his family and his wife and kid. He’s still able to inspire so many people and still see his son grow up, which is great.”

Once archrivals in F3000, Fittipaldi and Zanardi shared a lighthearted moment when they entered the Daytona garage together for the test.

“We used to hate each other,” Fittipaldi said with a laugh. “Yeah, but that’s life. I’m happy that he’s here. I’m happy that he’s been successful since when that happened. The thing I’m the happiest is that he took a positive approach to everything.

“I imagine it must be extremely hard for him, but it could have been a million times worse if he just sat in bed or sat in his room and said, ‘Screw the rest of my life, I’m not going to do anything, I’m just going to stay here until the day comes.’ He is definitely an example because he made an awful situation something positive to serve as an example for a bunch of different people, and yet, sometimes we complain when things don’t happen our way or put on 2 pounds. The guy doesn’t have any legs, and he’s running at a competitive pace. So that’s definitely an example. A big role model, not only for the guys who are coming up through the ranks, but also for the old guys as a life example.”

Dixon’s first experience with seeing Zanardi was when he was a guest of Tasman Motorsports at the Vancouver race on Aug. 31, 1997. Zanardi won the pole position, had a problem in the race and drove from the rear to a fourth-place finish.

“I remember watching his Target car and going, ‘Holy shit,’” said Dixon, who joined Ganassi a few years later. “It almost looked like everyone was pulling out of his way. It was so bizarre. Then we went to Laguna Seca after that. From that day was just seeing how dominant that team was.

“They were a little hard-nosed, kind of aggressive and Alex himself is extremely exciting to watch. There was nobody quite like him. He’s definitely an extremely special individual. … You just don’t see it too often from that kind of adversity, a lot of people wouldn’t rebound like that. They’d go the other way. But then take it to the lengths he did with Olympics and using his body in other ways and going full circle back into the racing scene. There’s lots of pretty cool things he’s been able to achieve but also inspire communities around the world.

“He’s just a machine, man.”

Zanardi prefers to look at himself as just “a very lucky guy because evidently that’s the way I am as far as my character.

“When I woke up (after the crash), instead of asking, ‘Why did that happen to me?’ or ‘Why did I lose my legs’ I just asked myself, ‘How the hell am I going to do all the things that I have to do with no legs?’

“One thing after the other, I ended up where I wanted to be.”