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A Fateful Turn
Mark Bechtel
September 24, 2001
Alex Zanardi's gruesome crash in a CART race in Germany compounded the week's horror
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September 24, 2001

A Fateful Turn

Alex Zanardi's gruesome crash in a CART race in Germany compounded the week's horror

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Last Thursday, as he explained his decision to proceed with the German 500 in Lausitz two days hence, CART chairman and CEO Joseph Heitzler acknowledged that "we will be racing with a great deal of sadness and compassion." Heitzler announced that CART would change the name of the event to the American Memorial 500 but otherwise proceed as planned with the first race the circuit has ever held in Europe. However, rather than help the sports world take a step toward normalcy, the race left fans even more shaken.

Two-time CART champion Alex Zanardi, 34, was leading with 12 laps remaining when he made a quick pit stop to top off his gas tank. As he was leaving the pits, he lost control of the back end of his car and slid across the patch of grass that separates the pit road exit from the track. His car ended directly in the path of that of Alex Tagliani, which was going nearly 200 mph when it T-boned Zanardi. The two drivers were airlifted to a hospital in Berlin, where doctors amputated both of Zanardi's legs above the knee. As of Monday, Zanardi was in critical but stable condition. Tagliani suffered minor injuries.

That Zanardi's accident was the result of such an innocuous move as getting his car out of the pits is cruelly ironic. When he joined Chip Ganassi's CART stable in 1996 after an unremarkable stint in Formula One, he quickly earned a reputation for daring maneuvers. In September of that year, at Laguna Seca Raceway in California, he darted inside leader Bryan Herta on the final lap at what was widely considered to be an unpassable junction of the road course—a blind downhill S turn known as the Corkscrew. Zanardi bounced over the curb and flew through the air before wrestling the car under control and outrunning Herta to the checkered flag. The move is still known in CART circles as the Pass. A friend said to Ganassi, "Five hundred drivers have thought about that move; eight a———have tried it." What went without saying is that only one had pulled it off, and few racing observers were surprised when the one who did followed up his rookie of the year performance with back-to-back CART championships, in 1997 and '98.

Zanardi's personality has also won him admirers. Appearing on the Letterman show in 1998, he charmed the host, a race fan who had been part owner of Herta's car at the time of the Pass, with his dual gifts of gab and gourmet. During the appearance Zanardi called his grandmother in Italy to be sure that he had the proper egg and flour proportions for the homemade pasta he was making.

Zanardi gave Formula One another shot in '99, but following a disastrous campaign in which he failed to finish in the top six in any race and was left without a single point, owner Frank Williams bought out the remainder of Zanardi's contract. After taking a year off and resting at home in Monaco with his wife, Daniela, and their three-year-old son, Niccolo, Alex returned to CART for the 2001 season. He could not replicate his earlier success. His best finish was fourth, and he hadn't led a single lap all year until last Saturday—a day on which a very dark week became a little darker.

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