2001: The bad year, and how Alex Zanardi saved it

In 2003, Alex Zanardi returned to the cockpit to finish the final 13 laps of The American Memorial at Eurospeedway Lausitz, the site of the massive crash that resulted in the loss of both of his legs. (Photo: AlexZanardi.com)

(Originally posted on September 11, 2010)

Like everyone else, I have plenty of stories about September 11th, 2001.

I could sit here and talk about driving past the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport and wondering why there were no planes taking off or landing. Or about getting to work at a now-defunct racing collectibles manufacturer and seeing endless footage of the World Trade Center towers collapsing on the lobby's big-screen TV that was tuned to CNN. I could talk about the relief I felt as I heard the roar of F-16 Falcon's streaking off the runway at nearby Luke Air Force Base.

But this is a racing blog, so my story takes place four days later on a cold, damp racetrack in Germany called the Lausitzring.

It had already been a bad year for racing. This was 2001, and I was covering the NASCAR beat. The story - really, the only story all year - was how NASCAR was coping with Dale Earnhardt's death that February at Daytona. It was a year of grief, heartfelt tributes, the joy of his son winning in July at Daytona, the nausea of the avalanche of Earnhardt "tribute" collectibles (which I had a part in marketing and designing, to my everlasting shame).

But there were indelible images that I could not forget. Ken Schrader with his face white as chalk, answering a TV reporter's questions robotically after being the first to Earnhardt's window after the wreck. The sight of Dale Earnhardt Jr. sprinting away from the track. The long, lonely ambulance ride away from Daytona International Speedway, a mere formality because racetracks do not announce fatalities on-premises in order to avoid liability lawsuits and long, exhausting police investigations.

I thought that those images would be impossible to erase, and that it could not possibly get any worse. That was before September 11th.

On September 15th, my head was filled with the unforgettable horror of seeing United Airlines Flight 175 crashing into 2 WTC, the cataclysmic collapse of the Twin Towers, the agonizing hours between the attack on the Pentagon and the e-mail from my friend who worked there to say he was alive. In my head, the idea of holding an auto race that day, four days after this unimaginable tragedy, was incredible.

But the organizers of what was quickly renamed The American Memorial at Eurospeedway Lausitz were going ahead with it anyway. The track was already star-crossed - former F1 driver and IndyCar dabbler Michele Alboreto had died there in April of that year during testing for Audi, and a month later a race steward died after being hit by a touring car. Still, the idea was to go ahead with the race as a sign that terrorism could not irrevocably change our way of life.

Thirteen laps from the end of the race, leader Alex Zanardi, the popular Italian racer who everyone loved regardless of where one stood in the CART/IRL schism, exited pit road after his final stop of the day. On cold tires, he lost control of the car and spun onto the racing surface. The first car to encounter him, driven by Patrick Carpentier, barely managed to avoid him. The second, Alex Tagliani, did not.

I remember the wreck vividly. Tagliani's car plowed through Zanardi's monocoque as if it were barely there. I remember the explosion of carbon fiber and queer bits of orangish-tinted material intermixed among the debris. It was not until later that I learned that the material was all that was left of Alex Zanardi's legs.

At the time, though, all I could see was Zanardi sitting motionless in his cockpit. To be honest, I thought he was dead. It seemed as though it was the only conclusion to the incredible destruction I had witnessed. I felt sickened, nauseous, shocked. For Zanardi to die now, four days after 9/11 and in the same year that Dale Earnhardt met his tragic end, seemed like too much.

Except that Alex Zanardi didn't die.

The exceptional Simple Green CART Safety Team arrived within seconds of the accident. Dr. Terry Trammell, an unquestioned genius at orthopedic medicine, immediately began life-saving medical treatment. Dr. Steve Olvey mobilized a veritable army and air force to ensure that Zanardi was rushed to the proper trauma hospital. And although Zanardi lost both legs in the crash and nearly bled out completely on the track, he survived.

Facetious to say - I had not, after all, lost my legs - but when I learned that Alex was still alive I felt flooded with emotion - relief, giddiness, joy. Dale Earnhardt's death and 9/11 were nightmares that nobody would ever wake from, but Zanardi's improbable survival was enough to chase away some of the darkest gloom that I had felt - not just over the past week but during the whole year.

It says something about how drastically bad a year could be that a man losing both of his legs could be seen as a high-water mark or a sign of optimism and hope. But during a time when fate had taken so much away from the world, it was a blessing for us to get something back from her.

For me, Alex Zanardi's story has stayed with me as much as the 9/11 terrorist attacks have. And while today's anniversary is a time for many Americans to revisit the pain and anguish of New York City nine years ago, it might do us all good to also think of Alex, his survival, and his story of hope and optimism in the face of the blackest despair.

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