"I want to carry my son on my shoulders again"

In a serious accident, successful racing driver Alex Zanardi's life was changed in a flash. The popular daredevil lost both legs in a collision on the Euro Speedway Lausitz in the autumn of 2001, after which the focus of his ambitions switched from winning races and World Championship points to getting his health back and being able to carry his son on his shoulders once again.

Alessandro Zanardi is a racing driver through and through. He started racing karts at the age of 14, and by the age of 25 he was sitting in a Jordan and driving Formula 1. In 1996 he entered the American CART series and won it twice in a row in 1997 and 1998. He then made another attempt at Formula 1, but had a "jinxed year". He thought carefully about returning to the USA and to CART, but was unable to resist the temptation of joining a new team. The series is held mainly in the United States and at a few tracks in Europe.

Alex Zinardi (Morio/Wikimedia)
Alex Zinardi (Morio/Wikimedia)

Suddenly on the brink of death

On September 15, 2001, Zanardi started his car on the Euro Speedway Lausitz racetrack in Germany. The previous season had not been a particularly successful one for Zanardi. He had often missed out on winning by a whisker. On this day however, things seemed to be finally working out. Just one more pit stop and then it would be over. The tank was full, the chief mechanic waved him off and Zanardi accelerated away. In his own mind he thought: "Now I've got it, this time no one's gonna stop me!" As he raced out of the pit lane Zanardi lost control of his car, probably as a result of dirt or oil on the roadway, and spun out into the middle of the track. At that very moment, some of the other cars appeared. The first car managed to avoid Zanardi. The second crashed into the left side of his car at almost 200 miles an hour, ripping off the entire front of the car. "It happened in a split second. Part of the car stayed with me, the rest flew away taking part of me along with it." Zanardi lost consciousness. He was badly injured and was losing blood at a terrifying rate. The doctor could reduce the bleeding a little by sealing the arteries of both legs with his fingers. Because of the seriousness of the injury, the doctors decided to fly Zanardi straight to Berlin, despite the longer flight.

Difficult times in hospital

During the flight Zanardi continued to lose a lot of blood. His heart stopped three times and was restarted each time using heart massage. At the hospital he was given a litre of blood and taken immediately to the operating theatre. The surgeons had to decide very quickly how much of the damaged thighs they could save, and they had to get it right. On the right leg, they decided against the difficult and not particularly promising option of retaining the knee in favour of closing the wound as quickly as possible. On the left-hand side however they acted swiftly and accurately to save at least part of Zanardi's upper leg. "That way they made it possible for me to use a prosthesis, which means that I can now walk reasonably well". After an eight-hour emergency operation, Zanardi's condition was stable but very critical. Further operations would be required in the months that followed. A procession of family and friends came to his hospital bed. The support he felt helped him through and his will to live is unbroken. As he emerged from the acute phase, Zanardi began to adjust to his new life. He felt a terrible feeling of separation from his own body, but soon rose optimistically to the challenge and began to win back his quality of life with prostheses.

The long way back

Zanardi's new life poses totally new questions and demands totally new qualities. Psychologically, the most difficult time was not when he was in hospital in Berlin, but when he finally got home to Italy. When he had company, he was able to hide from the difficult questions and the "suffering". But to his nearest and dearest, who were around longer than just a brief visit, his pain was obvious. After lengthy discussions with them, he came to realise exactly what had happened to him and what it meant for his new life. Zanardi went through periods of deep depression. His family, and above all his wife Daniela and son Niccolo helped him to find the strength of mind to cope with his new situation. His goal remained to be able to carry his three-year-old son on his shoulders again. The first tiny success - a trip to the countryside in the wheelchair - gave him new heart and strength. Adapting to the prostheses and exercising with them was exhausting and there were constant setbacks. Zanardi helped to design his new "legs" himself, and improved their sometimes incredibly amateurish construction. He cites as an example how one actually very good model has a tendency to tear your pants from the inside if you fall over - and the manufacturers think that if you let your pants get torn, then you obviously don't know the right way to fall.

Back to the racetrack

Two years later, Zanardi returned to the scene of his accident and drove his adapted racing car around the remaining 13 laps to the end of the race, watched by 50,000 spectators. He has also managed to carry his son on his shoulders again. For this optimist, coping with his accident and with his new life is a whole new race for quality of life. "I'm just an optimist who's lived an amazing life and continues to live it; someone who knows how to appreciate just how many good things are left to him."

Victory in Oschersleben

Zanardi has achieved however much more: Driving in the Touring cars world championship in Oscherleben in 2005 he won his first race since the serious accident. Zanardi's comeback was made possible by the BMW team from Roberto Ravagli. The Italian built a BMW 320i, that was especially designed for his disability. Zanardi accelerates with the steering wheel and changes gears with a gear lever.

Author: Dominik Feusi/ updated by Patrick Gunti, and translated by PmcC
Source: book by Gianluca Gasparini and Alex Zanardi: Nicht zu bremsen (My Story)