Above: Alex Zanardi with Nathalie McGloin, president of the FIA Disability and Accessibility Commission
BMW presented Alex Zanardi with the chance to race an M8 GTE at one of the world’s two biggest 24-hour events. As he tells it, the Italian’s response caught BMW Motorsport boss Jens Marquardt by surprise.
“In this situation I kept hearing about some of my colleagues taking part to the Daytona 24,” he said. “And that got me curious about this event and I kept a promise to myself down the road if ever I would have the opportunity, that’s the place where I would want to be.
“So last year at the beginning of the season actually, Jens Marquardt came to me and said, ‘Alex, you know we’re developing this new car, the new M8. We may have the possibility to get you into one of our team for a 24-hour [race], okay? It’s probably now too early to say this but if ever you have the opportunity would you prefer to compete in Daytona or Le Mans?
“He probably thought, with me being European, that I would answer with no doubt answer with Le Mans. And I answer instead, with no doubt, Daytona. All the way. All the way.”
His wish was granted last December.
“So I had to doubt in my mind. I said, ‘Oh yes. Absolutely Daytona,’” he added. “This is the place where it would really be cool for me to be. Sorry, Le Mans would be an interesting offer, but if you say which one you prefer, no doubt, I wanna go to Daytona. So that was that. Then at the end of the year we all went to the Christmas party and he announced that he would have organized a team for me in 2019. Which was nice, but it was also a surprise for me. A very nice one. Here we are.”
Zanardi will race for BMW Team RLL at Daytona in an M8 GTE fitted with new controls that allow the former CART IndyCar champion to use his hands to operate the twin-turbo V8-powered machine. It’s a welcome upgrade over the previous system that required the paraplegic to use his prosthetic legs to operate some controls.
Looking ahead to his Daytona debut, the 52-year-old cites a purity of competition around the 3.56-mile road course and oval as the greatest attraction to the event.
“In comparison … don’t get me wrong, Le Mans is a great race,” he continued. “They have a great tradition and whatever. But quite frankly there’s no appeal for me. It has no charisma on me. It’s a race where it’s more a technical exercise among the engineers to give to the drivers the best car because that’s what you take to compete.
“Daytona is a completely different ballgame. It’s a field where you need to manage your skill, your driving. Also, it very often into physical situations of traffic. Definitely very busy, turning the wheel many times. So, it’s much more racing, let’s say, than in my view than Le Mans would have been.”
Zanardi expects to enjoy having the likes of Fernando Alonso and other big stars in the Rolex 24 field, but the bigger attraction will come from reconnecting with American racing fans after building such a loyal following during his IndyCar years.
“This goes on top of everything but the main thing for me is to turn the engine on and take [to] the circuit,” he said. “This is what I care about. This is the most important thing and let me also add that for some reason, when I was competing in Indy cars and I considered United States my home up to the point where I felt a little bit American.
“I don’t wanna sound too arrogant in saying this, but I felt very welcome in your country. Not only by the fans, by the people surrounding me but also in the opportunity I was given.”