This is the Best Comeback Story of 2019

This is the Best Comeback Story of 2019

On April 14th, Tiger Woods won his fifth Masters green jacket after not winning a golf major for 11 years and not winning the Masters for 14 years. His return from a sex scandal and multiple back surgeries is undoubtedly one of the greatest comeback stories in sports history. However, there is another comeback story that occurred in 2019, that involves the world of motorsports. The man behind this comeback story is Alex Zanardi.

If you’re not familiar with the name Alex Zanardi, he is an Italian born racer with numerous championships to his credit. After a less than successful stint in Formula 1, where he spent 1993 and 1994 as a Lotus F1 team driver, Zanardi would come to the United States in 1995 to drive for Chip Ganassi Racing. Quickly becoming one of the series’ most popular drivers, Zanardi quickly raced to the top of the field, claiming three race wins and six pole positions during his rookie season.

Zanardi at speed in his Target Chip Ganassi Racing Reynard Honda Champ Car. (Autoweek)

His 1996 season was not as successful as 1995, but his win at Laguna Seca cemented Zanardi as a top CART championship contender. On the last lap of the race, Zanardi made a daring pass into the corkscrew, overtaking then race leader Bryan Herta. The move, now dubbed “The Pass,” is one of the most incredible overtakes in racing history.

In 1997 and 1998, Zanardi would reach the pinnacle of his racing career, capturing back to back CART championship titles for Chip Ganassi Racing. 1999 saw Zanardi return to Formula 1 with a season best finish of seventh at Monza. However, his Formula 1 return would be a short one, and he returned to the United States in 2001. However, a crash at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz in Germany would change his life forever.

On September 15th, 2001 while leading the race at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz, Zanardi was involved in a violent accident. Late in the race, Zanardi pitted for fuel and tires from the lead. Exiting the pits with cold tires, Zanardi spun his car in front of second place runner Patrick Carpentier. Carpentier was able to avoid contact with Zanardi, but the car behind him driven by Alex Tagliani was not. The violent impact from the side of the car ripped Zanardi’s car in pieces and would results in Zanardi losing both of his legs in the accident. A rapid response by the medical team at the track is credited for saving Zanardi’s life, but the crash would end his open wheel racing career.

Alex Zanardi’s terrifying accident that resulted in him losing both of his legs.

At this point in his life, while most people would most likely give up, and retire from racing, Zanardi’s passion for racing would propel him to continue his racing career. Embracing his injuries with poise and grace, Zanardi entered the world of hand cycling. In 2007, Zanardi captured 4th place at the New York City Marathon in the hand cycling division, with only four weeks of training to his credit. But, Zanardi did not stop there. In 2011, Zanardi would win the New York City Marathon in the hand cylcing class. Zanardi was also able to win gold medals in the 2012 and 2016 Paralympic Games in London and Rio de Janeiro.

Zanardi competes in a BMW 320si during FIA World Touring Car competition. (Autocar)

Only two years after his near fatal accident in Germany, Zanardi returned to the EuroSpeedway Lausitz. In a car modified with hand controls, Zanardi drove a CART IndyCar around the track for thirteen laps, symbolizing the last thirteen laps his failed to complete two years prior. The most amazing thing about this story is that during these thirteen laps, Zanardi set a lap that if he had been competing during the weekend, would have placed him fifth on the grid for the race.

In what can only be described as amazing, Alex Zanardi returned to racing full time in 2004 in the FIA European Touring Car Championship. 2005 saw Zanardi return to victory lane after capturing a win in a BMW 320si. In 2009, Zanardi announced his retirement from racing, after losing both of his legs only eight years prior. As we have seen in many sports retirements, some athletes can not stay retired, and in 2014, Zanardi made his return to racing. Driving a BMW Z4 GT3, again with modified hand controls, Zanardi would complete a full season and finish 20th in the championship standings.

Zanardi discusses track conditions with longtime friend Max Papis during IMSA Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona practice this year. (Matthew Boyce Photography)

One thing that was left for Zanardi to do was return to the United States, a country where Zanardi had his most success. In early 2019, it was announced that Alex Zanardi would return to the US to drive in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car championship. However, this would not be just any ordinary race. Zanardi competed in the countries most grueling sports car race: the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.

Competing in a BMW M8 GTE fielded by Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan Racing, Zanardi finally returned to racing in the United States. With BMW teammates John Edwards and Jesse Krohn, Zanardi would compete and finish one of the most grueling races in the world. While the car would finished 32nd overall and 9th in class, it was an incredible return to racing in the United States by a man who can only be described as inspiring and motivating.

Zanardi racing through the twisting corners of Daytona International Speedway during the 2019 Rolex 24 at Daytona. (Matthew Boyce Photography)

In no means are these words downplaying what Tiger Woods has done in 2019, as it is an incredible accomplishment. However, Alex Zanardi’s return to the United States to race again is one of those moments in motorsports that will live in racing immortality. Where will Zanardi race again? That question is yet to be answered, but be assured, if it has wheels and he can drive it, Zanardi will absolutely do it.

Featured Image Credit: Matthew Boyce Photography

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