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Champ Car Media Conference

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Open Wheel Racing Topics:  Champ Car

Champ Car Media Conference

Alex Zanardi
April 23, 2003

ERIC MAUK: We have two-time series title winner who won the championship in 1997 and '98, one of the most popular drivers in CART champ car history and a man that will be serving as the Grand Marshal for the upcoming German 500 at German Speedway, Mr. Alex Zanardi. Obviously a lot of reporters out there, that you are going to be the Grand Marshal for the German 500 and again returning to the track, coming back to see the champ cars since you were at the Molson Indy Toronto last year, but a lot of reports over what's going on and people making all kinds of speculation, and just want to give you a chance to address what's going to happen over there.

ALEX ZANARDI: Thank you a lot. First of all, it's quite emotional to be speaking to you guys through the phone. It brings me back with good memories that I have from the days that I was driving and attending an event only as a Grand Marshal, which is -- it's great for me. I'm very, very proud to come back and to be named Grand Marshal for the event. CART gave me a very, very big honor for this. I let it slip out of my lips that I'm going to try to bring the surprise. "Obviously, well, Alex, you used to be a driver, so what's the surprise?" And therefore people are basically drawing conclusions and everybody is saying that I'm probably going to drive something, the speculation that I heard today went from driving the pace car to competing in the main event. Again, I'm honored that I'm still news for someone and people are still interested in my progress. And again, I'm very honored to serve the role of Grand Marshal for the event and it will be exciting for me to put my helmet on and compete in the main event. Unfortunately this won't be the case, but again it will be a joy for me to watch all of my friends in the CART community and again be close to the fans that supported me.

ERIC MAUK: With all you've accomplished in champ car racing, it's going to be a long time before anything you do is not going to be news in the champ car community.

ALEX ZANARDI: Well, I don't know that, but again, it's going to be fun for me and it doesn't really matter whether there is going to be. For me the important thing is to be, again, with people that I love, people that I've enjoyed together in my racing career.

Q. Going back to Lausitz, I don't know how much you remember about anything, I guess you don't remember too much about the accident, but is there any feeling about going back to that particular track?

ALEX ZANARDI: Well, Mike, obviously there will be something going through my mind. I wouldn't be human otherwise, I guess. But, quite frankly, I feel that psychologically, the accident is definitely behind me. And again, I've said that a few times, I don't feel I have to take any credit for that. I just feel very lucky that Mother Nature made me like that. I'm a very optimistic person. I think definitely the accident is behind me, and honestly, I have no problems to admit that just after the accident when I came home, when I find myself playing with the remote control of the television on the wheelchair, I felt kind of miserable sometimes. I also talk about the days where I could just go out, fool around or for a ride with my bicycle and things like that, but I stayed very little on that attitude. Fortunately, I've met people along the way that helped me a lot, technically speaking, as well, to put my life back together, and it didn't take long for me to be completely over that. So now I wake up in the morning and the way I see life is simply as it is. I organize myself to achieve what I want to. Yes, sure, there is things I can't do anymore, but there is others that I do things, what it happened to me. I don't think the feelings they'll will have driving into Lausitzring with my rental car will be feelings of fear. It will probably be more feelings of pride to say, "you didn't do me this time." I'm still going to be very proud to go back to that place and probably this time leave the place with a smile on my face hopefully.

Q. At Toronto you showed us you were pretty good in a flagstand, as well. Are you going to be doing the flagstand thing at the Lausitzring, is that part of your Grand Marshal assignment or what do you know about that?

ALEX ZANARDI: Funny that you ask because I spoke to Chris Pook a few months ago when the idea came along and I said, "So, Chris, I'm very honored that you named me the Grand Marshal, but what exactly is a grand March marshal is supposed to do?" "Well," he said, "Alex, what the hell you want?" (Laughing). So, I guess, yeah, that would probably be part of the -- of the routine, but again, hopefully not only that, PR activities. But that's a pretty good position to watch the start of the race, I have to say. It's going to be exciting to do anything if they ask me to.

Q. And you assured us you don't be driving in the race itself, but is there any chance you might do a demonstration lap or two?

ALEX ZANARDI: Actually we talked about something like this, driving the pace car or this and that. We were working on something originally but it wouldn't be a surprise if I tell you, anyway.

Q. You still have a crash helmet, I'm sure?

ALEX ZANARDI: We'll see.

Q. The first part is about skiing and the second part is about go-carts. In Toronto you mentioned you liked to go back skiing, is there any progress? And tell me about go-cart racing, what have you done and how are your plans?

ALEX ZANARDI: Something has happened since then. Concerning the ski, I was on the snow last winter and I did ski and I did enjoy that a lot because basically I skied with a solution called the mono ski. It is sort of tiny wheelchair with a mono shock, with a shock absorber mounted on a single ski and you also have two stoplizer (ph) they call it, which are like two little canes with a ski on each end. This is a solution that is being invented for people that cannot use their legs, paraplegic or in any case, paralyzed people. I had to do a lot of adaptation because originally when I visit the guy that is building the thing, he told me that I had to take my legs off; I told him no way. For me, skiing is fun and it's not going to be very funny if I can't even jump off the thing and go buy myself a cappuccino. So fortunately, I can walk, so I want to be able to do that. And they said, well, nobody ever did it. So I said I'll be the one. Sure enough, I went home, I went to the workshop of a friend of mine and we started to cut, we had the glue, weld and finally something which allowed me to go ski. I really enjoyed it because originally I thought that would be a way for me to be able to ski with my wife and son but was not going to be really challenging. In fact, I was absolutely wrong. This was fantastic and it gave me a lot of the emotion which I felt when I used to ski with my own legs, and it's very challenging, as a matter of fact. So, that's that. I'll have to tell you, chapter two will come next winter and concerning the go-cart. Well, the problem is that I kept bouncing on people that couldn't really build me something that I'd like. So I came up with a solution that I'm building my own go-cart. Very shortly a chassis called Zanardi is going to come out and it's going to be sold also in the United States. And so I'm making this together with some friends that are in the business already from many years and I race with which is a company which is called CRG, an Italian company. So we are building a chassis which is going to be named Zanardi, and, I don't know, probably I'll call the racing one doughnut and I'll call the one -- the pineapple or something like this, I haven't come up with names yet. The good thing is that from now on the next race I'll do with go-carts, it will be with my own chassis.

Q. I want to see you do that sometime.

ALEX ZANARDI: Well, you won't have to wait long.

Q. There's been some controversy about the Elkhart Lake race this year, and it looks like now with Mario Andretti's help it's actually going to happen. Could you talk about your memories of racing in Elkhart Lake, you won there in '97, and if you think it's an important race for the champ car series?

ALEX ZANARDI: Well, absolutely. The opportunities for the human beings to show their capability and to express their talent in comparison to a group in which obviously everybody is really talented, but to really show that they have something more -- well, these opportunities are already so few because the competitiveness already is so intense and the technology has took over so much. Look at Formula 1, for instance. Obviously, CART is not an exception. It's the challenge, very simply dominated by the technology that is involved in this sport. So therefore, circuits like Elkhart Lake are really the heart (ph) of the good drivers. You know, when you win a championship, it's a reason of pride. When you win on oval, it's a reason of pride. But when you win in Elkhart Lake, it's a reason of pride, for sure, because you know that suddenly you had the car to do the job but the job was done and was done well, because otherwise you don't win on a place like Elkhart Lake if you don't have it as a driver. I hope this answers your question. This is one of my pest memories from my days in CART. I remember with a lot of pride as well the very first test I did in Elkhart Lake where Morris Nunn was asking my teammate Jimmy, Jimmy Vasser, whether he would let me follow him for a few laps at the beginning of the pack because he kept telling me: "Alex, you have to take it easy, this is a very difficult circuit, you will probably be two seconds off the pace for the first moment of testing. Just take it easy, don't worry, the circuit can't long, two seconds there don't mean much. It's like half a second someone else, so expect to be behind," and etc., Etc. Well, what happened is that Jimmy's car let him down basically even before they could leave the pit lane. So he was down for the morning because they were changing the engine, and therefore, I could not have my guys in place. But nevertheless, like 11:30-ish, I was two seconds faster than everyone there and the entire community was testing that day. So it was pretty funny because Jimmy has one of these books, English/Italian, with all of the sentences, like if you go to the airport or if you jump in a cab or something like this. He had this sentence, when you take a cab, which meant in Italian, was "can you go a little slowly, please." And he came to me and he used that sentence in his reluctant Italian, it was really funny because it was very appropriate. But obviously, these were the days where I had not a great car and it was really easy for me to do things like that. But in any case, to win a race on a normal road course, it's important, it's a reason of pride. But to win in Elkhart Lake, it's much better from the driver's point of view. I really hope that all of the champ car drivers will have the opportunity to compete in such a place.

Q. Any truth to the rumor that you've hired a full-time engineer to work on the damping of that skiing machine to go a little quicker?

ALEX ZANARDI: No. I sent the design to Morris and he took a look at it. (Laughing). But he said that on the ski ramps there's too many bumps for his taste.

Q. What's happening with the Alex Zanardi Foundation that you started and what's the status of that these days?

ALEX ZANARDI: Well, thanks a lot for bringing up the question because this will give me the opportunity to talk about it a little bit. The Foundation, as you know, it was made because -- I shouldn't say only thanks. Thanks, and because of the generosity of especially the American people. Still, when I was in my hospital bed, people which would sign a letter simply with a name of Mark or Eric, they start to send from one dollar to even $10,000, and obviously, we had to open a foundation to collect that money and to make sure that that it would go somewhere. Eventually, last year I checked it, the account and the number was more than interesting so I decide to donate $85,000 to a foundation called AMAD (ph), which is a French foundation that was opened from Princess Grace and it is still around for Prince Albert of Monaco and AMAD (ph) stands for Association -- World Association for Child AIDS (ph), so it helps children. Thanks to that amount of money, they were able to complete a project that they had going in Madagascar in a school which is also first AIDS (ph) pediatric center and they had that going and with that amount of money they were able to complete it. So that is the first thing that my foundation has done. Now, my foundation, because obviously I'm -- right now I'm currently busy with a lot of projects but I don't have time to follow my own foundation to do my own projects. Right now it's only working this bank account. I collect money, again, thanks to the generosity of people which are keeping sending of us, but also throughout activities that I do myself. For instance, CART itself, I don't know whether I'm allowed to say the exact amount, but they are making a very, very generous donation to the foundation for me to come -- inaudible. And also, I'm collecting money towards other activities. Last year I came to Toronto. I was invited to go to the gala that the promoter holds and I accepted the invitation and with my total surprise, I was very happy, Molson wrote a check of $25,000 and they presented me with a check of $25,000. So in these days I get very often requests to do particular interviews, interviews that for their nature they take obviously some time. For me, it's work. I certainly enjoy when I see my ugly face on television, but it's not the reason of my life, you know. Therefore, once I have done a couple, I'm happy and my ego is satisfied and this becomes work for me. And these Italians, they never get tired of asking. So what I have done, we have started asking for money some they don't call back again and some they say they are very happy and they make a donation to the foundation. All of these activities other times, I get invited to do promotion for companies that they want to use my image to draw attention and I ask for money, it all goes to the foundation. I don't take anything for myself. So right how, again, it would be terrible not to use this opportunity, because now with very, very little effort, I can make a lot. I can turn that into a lot of money which I put into the foundation and then time for to time, I then decide how to use that money to donate to this foundation or to this other. It may come the day where I have less commitment, less things to do and I will find the time to promote my own foundation which may have particular goals but now, as I said, it mainly works as a bank account where I put all of the money that I make into all of these activities and with that, hopefully I will be able to help some of the kids.

Q. A lot of good coming out of very difficult circumstances in that respect.


Q. One question focusing on the actual racing this year. I don't know how closely you follow it or I'm sure you're aware that Sebastien Bourdais has been very, very quick in the early going this year but hasn't managed to win a race yet, and I'm harkening back to your first year in champ cars where you were very quick from the get-go, but didn't manage to win your first race until Portland. Do you have any sort of reflections on it, some of it was bad luck partly and some of it --

ALEX ZANARDI: Absolutely. I see a lot of similarities. Like my third-ever race in Long Beach I basically got beat because it took the fuel and I had to take fuel and stay out more laps. I didn't know. I simply didn't know the way it was working, and I just kept pushing really hard and when I arrived behind Bobby Rahal which I thought was traffic for me since the blue flags were out. I thought what it would do, he would let me go like you would do in F-1, and for once, I was the one that was supposed to be waived, but good old Bobby, that was it. It's easy then from the point of view of someone who knows about the series, oh, he shouldn't have waived, put the blame on the guy that probably looked impatient. But it's something that you have to learn. It's a learning curve and I'm sure Sebastien has a lot of talent and he will learn when it's time to use it and when it's time to hold it because that's the way that the races go. At the end of the day, even PT learned to be very patient, so never say never. I always said that if I was PT -- one day, Paul Tracy would be the first guy hired and I still feel that way, because I think Paul is super fast and he seems now to be really determined to win the No. 1 for next year, so I wish him the best.

Q. I would suspect a reunion with at Lausitzring may be emotional for you.

ALEX ZANARDI: Well, for sure. It was very emotional even last year when they came it Toronto because -- well, let me tell you a little story. I met with all of the guys that they rescued me first and they all this tears in their eyes and I couldn't -- I mean, I could understand more or less why but the message was not that clear until we closed the door and I sat on that medical room they have on their transporter with Terry Trammell, which was in Toronto last year and I took my legs off because he wanted to see how well everything healed on my legs. And then at one point he was looking at me and we were talking and we were having one of these instance of silence where you just finish a sentence, finish one particular question and we are just looking each other in the eyes. And he looked at me and he just fell down in tears and he said, "Alex, from tonight, I am going to sleep." And at that point I understood how emotion it must have been for some people that are so professional, so prepared, so good at what they are doing, but nevertheless, they see friends driving these cars and you can never be prepared to see a friend in such terrible shape as I was when they rescued me the first time. That particular moment made me understand in a blink of an eye, I saw I saw everything they went through that day, and that was a very touching moment for me. We will live that again probably together in Lausitz, but I hope this time we will be cheering each other behind a glass of red wine.

Q. We talk about making a positive about a negative and you had a horrible negative which you've turned into an inspiring positive. I know you are just living your life, but yet you've become such a huge symbol of inspiration to people, and not everybody was blessed with that Zanardi optimism gene, but what has that been like? I suspect you've been contacted -- I know people who were not even racing fans who are now Alex Zanardi fans are being drawn to the sport and are so inspired by your courage. To know that the things you do inspire lesser-equipped people to deal with their situations, what's that been like?

ALEX ZANARDI: It's very difficult to answer this question because whenever people stop me on the street and they pat my back and they say: "Alex, we admire you so much, you're such an inspiration for us or things like that," I don't know what to say. I'm speechless. From my position, all I can say is that I'm a guy that is trying to put his life back together, because we only have one life and to waste even a minute of it, indeed, it's a waste of time. It's stupid. I think every one of us has a lot of energies in his reservoir which they come out when it's needed. Hopefully and thankfully, not a lot of people have to find out how much energy they have in store, but I've met a lot of people who have similar problems to mine and despite the fact that they wouldn't think they were able to, but they still smile. They still come back to a very enjoyable life. They are still trying to improve and to get better. Obviously, the difference is that I am in the magazine, and as I said, my ugly face is on the television often and they aren't. Now, if with my attitude, I can energize somebody to do a little more, well, this is a great compliment. I thank you for it, but obviously I don't feel I'm doing this. I'm just trying the best to lead the best possible life and. But of course if you say with my actions, sometime I do that, obviously the only way I can comment on that is by saying I'm very proud that people tells me that. I wish I could be an inspiration for my wife. She would treat me with a little bit more respect. (Laughing).

Q. You have so many stories to tell and obviously everyone loves hearing them. Have you ever thought of doing a biography or anything like that?

ALEX ZANARDI: Thanks for asking this question. The answer is yes, and as a matter of fact, you won't have to wait long because I'm not working; I'm almost done with the book that is going to be my biography. The book is going to be published in Italian in mid-June, I would say near the end of mid-June. I won't have to wait long to get the English version because I think the editor has already sold and agreed and sold the rights to an American publisher the rights to do that. So it will take some time, I guess, with the translation, but eventually you're going to be able to read it. It's a very simple story, but because of that, I think it's a winner. I mean, at least for me it is because I really wrote it with a lot of sentiment, with a lot of feelings and I've read the biography from sportsmen which were very good stories, but you could clearly tell that they were not written by themselves. There was somebody that had done sort of an interview and had wrote the story on their behalf. For me, I want to do something like this. I'm definitely a big, big part in the book. I wrote a lot of -- I wrote basically everything myself together with a friend and I think that's why it really feels like my own creature.

Q. I have a friend around the age much 16 suffered the exact same injury that you did, and he was a sportsman and used that injury to create new legs and ways that he could ride his motorcycle and hunt and now has a driving business. Is it sometimes that you and gentlemen like my friends are people that sometimes get called on to do extraordinary things just because of circumstances?

ALEX ZANARDI: If I understood correctly, the question is would we do some exceptional things because we ended up in this particular situation.

Q. Yeah.

ALEX ZANARDI: Honestly, I don't think so. For some people it definitely works that way. I've met a lot of people who wore not involved in any sports before and after they lost one limb, they start to play tennis or ride bicycle or do things like, this maybe just to prove to themselves that they could do it. I honestly feel very happy with what I've done with my life. I have raced fantastic cars throughout many years and I've been able to enjoy great satisfaction at many different levels. I've driven in the past competitions and sometimes I've brought home the big cup. I've done a lot of things before the accident. Now when I drive a go-cart race, people cheer me or they talk about it more than when they used to talk about when I won a world championship in camp cars. I understand that, but for me, the time I won in champ cars certainly has much more meaning than it has to drive a go-cart race, even if I don't have legs now. I think people takes for granted that everything has got to be super difficult for me now; and therefore, whenever I move a finger, I have a sort of ovation and everybody is clapping. But in reality, I mean, it may not be easy but there's always way a to achieve something if you really want. Yeah, obviously I concentrate and focus on doing things that I still like to do, and this is because it's a little more difficult for me, but I don't see myself doing more than I used to do before. Simply now I always make news when I do it.

Q. Your return to Germany, will walking on that racetrack almost make everything in your life come full circle since this injury?

ALEX ZANARDI: No, no, I don't think so. Because honestly, that moment, psychologically, it happened a very, very long time ago. So mentally, I've walked around that circuit already a year ago, at least.

Q. You brought up earlier in the conversation your go-carting exploits and I was surprised that you will be joining the likes of other champ car drivers, past and present, who have come up with their own signature lines like Memo Gidley and Christian Fittipaldi who have developed a line of CRG. What have you asked out of CRG as far as modifications made for your own personal cart, and has the car you've been driving been shifters or non-shifters?

ALEX ZANARDI: Honestly, we are in the process of deciding all of the things. We haven't figured everything out but I guess this will also come with a little bit of time. I will drive the car myself and I will come up with a request to personalize the chassis a little bit. The intention is to build one chassis for 100CC class and for the shifter as well. I hope this answers your question.

Q. The CART races you have run, did you have to adjust your style to be able to run that equipment?

ALEX ZANARDI: Obviously it's a little more difficult to find what the exact seating position which means to find the right weight distribution because the legs that I am currently using, they weigh a little less than human legs. That makes the weight distribution shift the weight distribution a little bit towards the back. Besides, with CRG we are currently working on a new fuel tank which will allow me to sit much more comfortably. And third, we are working on a new brake system which again will allow me to brake efficiently and that hopefully will solve the handicap that I have in my previous go-cart experience. When I did my last go-cart race, I qualified 45-thousandths behind the guy who won pole. And after the race after simply two or three laps, I was done because the brakes that they gave me were just too hot to be too hard to be activated with my hand, and after two or three laps, my arm was hurting so badly that I simply could not slow the car down anymore, and that's why I took a lap in position and I finished sixth. But other than that, I guess the pain is exactly the same, which is what delivers the message. And if you get the way to let that message arrive and operate exactly the same kind of action, I don't see why I should be any slower now than when I'm driving with my hands than before when I was driving with my feet. It's just a question of, again, finding a solution which will work for me.

Q. What kind of training are you in now? Do you have a different regimen than last year? Obviously you are making tons of progress from the last time I saw you.

ALEX ZANARDI: My friends, they always ask me, have you done some bodybuilding or something like this, because my arms and my shoulder since the days -- inaudible -- quite a lot. And I don't do anything, I use my arms a lot. I recently bought myself a pair of canoes, which we go out, me and my wife when we have time, we live on the sea, and so on beautiful days like today, we take the canoe and we go out. Obviously, to power the that canoe, you use your arms. Or at home, I will build a little gym on which I have placed machines that I can use. I've bought, also, a bicycle that my wife use, but I also have a treadmill on which I go. I've been reaching the speed of nine kilometers per hour, which is pretty respectable for a guy that can't run, only walk. And I use what they call the roller, it is basically that machine that you operate with your arms, you just roll your arms around. But this is not the reason why my muscle has grown. It grows because I walk with canes. Because every time I have to make a step or climb stairs, I have to use my arms to pull myself up or to push myself up. I use my arms almost 24 hours a day and that's why I've built a couple of arms that looks like I look like a baker (ph), you know.

Q. It's all part of being healthy, I assume?

ALEX ZANARDI: From the waste up, I look like a real Italian January macho.

Q. You're back on your boat and I hope your brother-in-law is cleaning the boat now for you; you're skiing and go-carting. What's next on your wish list?

ALEX ZANARDI: Well, recently I've been invited to do a tour from a guy that pushes bicycle out of the only leg he has got. It's known here in Italy, it's called Fabrizzio Macci (ph) and for the para-Olympics. He wants to take me into tandem, you know, one of these bikes with two seats and two pedals. But I am not so sure I want to do it because he said he wants to drive, so I don't like to be the passenger.

Q. I hope you put some jokes in your book.

ALEX ZANARDI: I wrote a piece -- recently I went in for a trip to England and on the way back I was writing things on my notebook, and that I went through it and I read it again and I couldn't stop laughing. And everybody turned around and looked at me like I was the biggest idiot on this earth, I was laughing on my own. There is some stories that are really pretty funny. I hope in the translation they will come out adds funny as they sound in Italian.

ERIC MAUK: Let's bring to a close our weekly teleconference. We appreciate everybody joining us today and again, Alex, thank you very much for joining us and we look forward as does everyone to seeing you in Lausitz on the 11th of May.

ALEX ZANARDI: See you then.

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