DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Alex Zanardi’s Rolex 24 at Daytona was problem-plagued, perhaps even forgettable.
That was just fine for one of the most beloved figures in motorsports, who found the racing to be secondary to the adulation and affection he received in his return to North America.
“I’m proud of the quotes, the comments, the love,” Zanardi said after the race concluded Sunday. “It’s what I got from all the fans, all the people that stopped me and all the people who keep telling me how inspirational my story is.”
Zanardi lost both his legs in a 2001 crash during a CART race in Germany but built a remarkable career after the devastating injury. He designed his own prosthetic legs after studying the best options for optimal mobility. Then he took up touring cars and was able to race again.
Zanardi moved to hand cycling and won that division in the New York City Marathon. The Italian qualified for two Paralympics and won six medals, four of them gold. He’s completed Iron Man competitions by using a wheelchair for the running portion and his handcycle for the biking.
But he’d yet to race in North America, where he built a tremendous following during his two championship seasons in CART. He pulled off one of the greatest passes in motorsports history in the corkscrew at the Laguna Seca, California road course, and invented the victory doughnut that NASCAR drivers do to this day.
It was the idea of longtime partner BMW to develop a steering wheel that would allow Zanardi to race without his prosthetics. The manufacturer assumed he’d want to use it in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but Zanardi instead chose Daytona International Speedway.
The yearlong project with BMW culminated in a reunion between Zanardi and so many of his old friends, teammates and rivals. His plotline was the richest in a race full of superstars, even if it didn’t go as planned.
When Zanardi got in the car for his first driving stint Saturday the steering wheel that had been exhaustively tested suddenly wouldn’t make an electrical connection with the car. Neither did the backup.
Zanardi nearly got out of the car before he’d even left pit lane, but one final flip of the switches at least got the wheel to connect. The problems stretched into the next driver change and put the Bobby Rahal-owned team in a hole that took it out of contention for the GT Le Mans victory. The class win went to the second Rahal car, which reinforced Zanardi’s belief that he had a team capable of winning the race.
“In the end of the day, I came here because I thought it was technically possible to do what we did together, and had I not believed it possible, I don’t think I would have come,” Zanardi said.
“But yeah, if someone can receive some type of inspiration from what I do, it fills my heart with pride. I’m just a very curious guy who has a lot of possibility. You say ‘Why do you do this?’ Why shouldn’t I? I’m having a lot of fun doing what I’m doing.”
Zanardi plans to resume training in hand cycling next in a bid to defend his Paralympic medals next year in Tokyo. He turns 53 later this year.
Other notable events from the Rolex:
Teams spent the final third of the race complaining about treacherous conditions that had drivers concerned for their safety.
“It rained like hell,” Zanardi said. “It was really beyond any limit. I’ve never seen so much rain falling from the sky.”
The final eight hours were marred by numerous on-track incidents as IMSA waffled back and forth in its decision making. There were long yellow flag periods in which the drivers circled the sloppy track behind the pace car, the two stoppages, and many, many on-track mishaps.
“It’s probably the worst conditions I’ve ever driven in,” said AJ Allmendinger. “You are just trying to hang on and hope when you catch that puddle the wrong way you can save the car. It’s just so nasty out there.”
Richard Westbrook believed IMSA’s indecision over the weather cost Chip Ganassi Racing a third consecutive GTLM victory. Westbrook was leading and adamant it was too dangerous but IMSA picked a random time to stop the race for the second and final time.
The stoppage came after Westbrook had pitted from the lead for fuel.
“I just thought they had to stop the race, it was ridiculous,” Westbrook said. “But once we pitted, that’s when they pulled out the red flag, and it cost us the win. The conditions were incredibly bad during that last period and it didn’t matter if you were driving 30 mph or 130 mph, you couldn’t keep the car on the track.”
A lineup of four female drivers was in contention for a podium finish until Katherine Legge slipped and spun her Acura in the rain with under four hours remaining. Legge was fourth when she spun.
The team, run through Meyer Shank Racing, featured Legge, Simona de Silvestro, Bia Figueiredo and Christina Nielsen. It was created by Jackie Heinricher, a racing enthusiast and scientist who wanted to promote female drivers, and landed sponsor Caterpillar to fund her vision.
The lineup remained on the lead lap for almost 20 hours and under normal weather conditions might have raced for the class victory.
“It’s disappointing to have a situation like this so close to the end of the race, but it’s super tricky conditions out there and it could happen to anyone,” Nielsen said. “If you’re playing tennis and you drop a ball, you just get a new one and try again. Here, if you make one mistake, there are high consequences.”
Christian Fittipaldi needed several moments to compose himself after the final stint of his career. The Brazilian openly cried after completing his final Rolex 24.
A three-time Rolex winner and part of last year’s overall title, this race was the farewell party. The two-time IMSA champion is transitioning into a brand ambassador for Cadillac and the Action Express Racing team.
Fittipaldi debuted in Formula One in 1992 and has raced NASCAR, sports cars, and Indy cars since.
“I am sad, happy, relieved, but I think most of all at peace with myself and I think that’s most important,” he said.
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