Now 50, Zanardi just keeps winning and enjoying life

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When asked what's next for Alex Zanardi, he jokes that if he were no longer fast enough to race cars, some might suggest that it's time to park himself in a boat and learn to enjoy fishing.

Knowing the Italian's history of excelling and impressing in everything he tries, whatever fish Zanardi landed would likely be a record breaker.

“It would be because I am a big liar,” he laughed.

“I would always make sure my fish grew a lot in the stories afterward. If you need proof, just ask (former teammate) Jimmy Vasser.”

All joking aside, the two-time Indy car champion who turned 50 this year added a few more successes to his incredible resume this fall.

Alex ZanardiIn October, Zanardi drove a BMW M6 touring car to victory in the final weekend of the 2016 Italian GT Championship. It was his fifth win behind the wheel of a hand-controlled race car, but his first in his native Italy.

“I was there just to enjoy every lap and not anxious to deliver but wanting to learn and, lap after lap, I managed to improve to the point where I happened to win the race, which I wasn't expecting,” he said of the GT weekend.

“To say that driving despite of my handicap is impossible and that I am sort of a superhero would be lying, because it isn't the case, but to say driving with my handicap is easy would also be lying.”

The Indy car fan favorite took four victories for BMW in the World Touring Car Championship, the first coming four years after he lost both legs at the knee in a terrifying accident during the 2001 Memorial 500 Indy car race in Lausitz, Germany.

In addition to the GT triumph this fall at the Mugello circuit in Italy, he scored two gold medals and a silver in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, Brazil, in September. Coincidentally, one hand cycling gold in September came on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the accident at Germany’s Lausitzring EuroSpeedway.

“I can't complain, it was a productive year,” he said.

“I have been busy doing my best in all the things I have been doing, but I have to say that many great things fell from the sky for me.”

In all, Zanardi has four gold and two silver Paralympic medals in hand cycle to go along with eight gold and two silver in world championships and several wins in prestigious marathons around the world.

The latest successes only add to a long and impressive career for the affable Italian, whose outlook on life and the way in which he tackles adversity is nothing short of amazing.

How else can you describe a person who describes losing his legs and nearly dying as an “opportunity” that has delivered an armful of medals, race wins driving in hand-controlled touring cars and the achievement of being the first person with a disability to drive a Formula One car.

Unsurprisingly, Zanardi doesn't see it that way.

“I know that my life is a never-ending privilege and if, because I do the things I love to do, someone says, 'Alex, you changed my life and you are an inspiration to me,' I am very proud,” he said.

“I don't think it's up to me to be an inspiration to someone — the talent is the eyes of someone who looks at me and sees inspiration in the things I do. The talent is not mine, the talent is in the people who need to see inspiration in the things they watch and for them to see it in me fills my heart with so much pride, but I can't take credit for it.”

Fifteen years after that fateful day in Germany, opportunity continues to come knocking at Zanardi's door and he unfailingly makes the most of it.

“I bumped into this hand cycle adventure and I took advantage of it,” he said.

“One day, I saw one on the roof of a car and I didn't look at this strange vehicle as a sporting device made for a disabled man, but as an interesting piece of technical equipment and I wanted to know about it.”

That discovery saw him put touring cars on hold at the end of 2009 to pursue a Paralympic career.

Most racing fans know how he got there: With 13 laps to go in the CART 2001 Memorial 500 in Lausitz, Germany, just days after the Sept. 11 tragedies, Zanardi spun exiting the pits and ended up stopped sideways on track with cars approaching at more than 200 mph. A broadside hit by another car amputated both legs at the knee and he came within a few drops of blood of losing life. His determination to live that day offered a hint of things to come.

Less than two years after the fateful accident, he returned to the EuroSpeedway to complete the final 13 laps of the race in a specially modified 2002 Indy car. Two years after that, Zanardi drove a hand-controlled BMW sedan to his first of four victories in the WTCC. In 2006, he drove a modified Sauber-BMW F1 car in Valencia, Spain.

His post-accident resume is so full of success that some might forget he also had an extraordinary career before he lost his legs, taking Indy car titles in 1997 and 1998 and scoring 14 wins in 51 starts after signing to race for Chip Ganassi Racing in 1996.

He also drove for Jordan (1991), Minardi (1992), Lotus (1993-1994) and Williams (1999) in Formula One, starting a total of 41 races. He was making an Indy car comeback with the Mo Nunn outfit in 2001 after a year away from racing when the accident happened.

Like U.S. racing legend Dan Gurney and champagne spraying, Zanardi's biggest mark on motorsport may be popularizing the now common practice of executing tight spins on the track after wins that create rubber “doughnuts” on the asphalt surface.

Although he raced sedans, Zanardi never returned to open-wheel competition, even though he expressed interest in trying to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 just before heading to the 2012 Paralympic Games. The Indy car split that began in 1996, when Zanardi arrived to the sport, meant he never got an opportunity to race in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” something he would have liked to have been able to change if he could.

But while he's certain that he could pilot a hand-controlled Indy car around the famed Brickyard, he also knows deep down that the time to race in the Indianapolis 500 has passed.

“If the opportunity would arise and everything was right, and for some reason it would fit in my life, yeah, I think technically speaking I wouldn't be afraid of saying, 'Yes, let's do it.’ But right now my life is in a slightly different dimension, so I doubt that this opportunity would arise and become a real one,” he said.

“But if tomorrow morning BMW announced that they have decided to step into INDYCAR and manufacture an engine for the series and they asked me to drive and do the test and then maybe down the road consider the option of driving in the 500, I don't think I would hesitate and I would go for it.”

(Check back to IndyCar.com on Wednesday as Alex Zanardi reminisces about his fun days with teammate Jimmy Vasser and Target sponsorship at Chip Ganassi Racing.)

Alex Zanardi

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