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After crash, Zanardi deals with changes

The charismatic former CART star, who lost both legs above the knees, is making progress.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 1, 2002

The charismatic former CART star, who lost both legs above the knees, is making progress.

In the racing world, a 15-minute tire change is dreadfully slow. But to Alex Zanardi, it is worthy of a cheering crowd. It is progress. It makes him feel alive.

And he is.

Zanardi is very much alive.

Eight months after the charismatic Italian driver lost both legs in a crash during a CART race in Germany, Zanardi meets life's challenges as a double amputee with the same pluck that made him a champion racer. Anyone else would have called for a tow truck.

"To me, this is a new life, and every day that I do something new, it's a little win," said Zanardi, 35. "I am the only crowd. There is no crowd like when I won Long Beach ... but still, it's an achievement for me. Every time I achieve a result I realize that I am fighting, that I am improving, and so it's a reason for me to smile."

Zanardi walks with prosthetic legs. He drives a car equipped with hand controls. He plays with his son. He works on his boat. Zanardi was on his way home from the marina near his Monte Carlo home Tuesday morning when he noticed his BMW had a flat. He never considered calling for help.

"It only took me 15 minutes to get the tire out of the back of the car and do everything," Zanardi said. "At the beginning I was kind of sweating. I said, "Man, I didn't need this one.' But then I changed that pattern so I was very proud of myself. Everybody can change a tire, right? But not everybody who has to be amputated on both legs could say he has done that."

All the descriptions that fit Zanardi when he vitalized the CART series with rookie of the year honors, 15 wins and titles from 1996-98 still apply. He remains engaging, honest, funny and energetic, putting others at ease with his infectious spirit.

Yes, there are times he wishes he still had his legs. But he prefers for people, when they see him, to offer encouragement, not sympathy. To clap him on the back, tell him how nice it is to see him adjusting so well. To smile, so he can smile back.

Zanardi remembers nothing beyond driver introductions of the Sept. 15 American Memorial race in Lausitz, Germany. He has watched many times a videotape of his accident leaving pit road, in which his spinning car was struck by Alex Tagliani's.

"I can see that I was opening my shield, my helmet, and then trying to undo my belt, so there was a time when I must have been awake and must have realized what had happened," Zanardi said. "I must have said, "Man, it's going to be tough to fix this (car).' But I don't remember any of that. I don't know if it was because of all the blood I lost or if it is just human nature that when it is too bad, it tells you. "We're going to erase that information.' "

Zanardi exercises by walking and swimming. Though his usual route is 3 kilometers, he recently walked in the garden behind his home, navigating the step down from the house and the uneven grass without his cane. The hardest part about walking with prosthetic legs, he said, is not having knees.

He prefers swimming in the ocean rather than a pool, where children cannot help but gawk.

"It's pretty embarrassing to go into a swimming pool and take your legs off and jump into the water. Especially the kids, they tend to watch you like you were a strange animal," he said. "The sea is big enough for nobody to notice a strange human being without legs going up and down the water."

Zanardi does not expect to race again, though he has the desire. After piloting the smoothest cars in the world in CART and Formula One the past several years, he would not want to drive just anything to compete. And single-seat cars do not have power steering, so he would need the CART sanctioning body to alter the rules for him to use hand controls.

Then there is his family.

"Quite frankly, this accident that I had had a change in all my relatives, all my family," Zanardi said. "I wouldn't be scared to drive again ... but is it really worth it to jeopardize the quiet of my family? I don't know. Whenever I mention could I go back to race with any sort of car, they turn white and they don't move a single muscle in their body."

Zanardi does not believe his accident was part of some grand design, that he was meant to inspire others with his resiliency. He says it was just bad luck.

Passion for life is his motivation.

"I don't think I am a tough guy," Zanardi said. "I just have a very good relationship with life in general and, therefore, I can still see a lot of positives in my life. I can assure you that I have a lot of weak points and a lot of bad habits, too. I am not a perfect man.

"I only try to do my best."

Soon, he'll have that pit stop down to 10 minutes.

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