Establishing a comfort zone with the hand controls in moments of panic is another area where Zanardi has a distinct challenge.
“It’s not (just) like endurance racing, where it’s more the rhythm which will pay the dividend, but you’re also competing among a very competitive group of drivers, (and) with many cars that are driven by gentlemen who are… I wouldn’t call them amateurs, because it sounds pretty not nice … but it is what it is.”
Zanardi’s become a physical specimen after years of training for — and winning — events at the Paralympics. Having achieved exceptional strength and muscle endurance, the shift from using at least one leg while racing to doing everything with both hands has led to more rigorous training of his upper body. Strapped into the seat, he’s become a conductor of sorts, with arms and hands twisting, pushing, pulling, and directing his one-man orchestra.
“Well, I can’t say it’s been terribly easy, but it’s not that difficult either,” he said. “I was warned by all the personnel at BMW when I was offered to drive the car, that they had probably to think of a different training procedure towards that commitment — to the point where they got me a little concerned in fact…
“Then I had the opportunity to drive the car in Vallelunga in Italy, which is a very tough circuit from a physical point of view, with some medium- to high-speed turns where you really develop some Gs, as far as lateral forces and longitudinal forces, because the circuit has a lot of lateral grip. Basically, I was able to put together like 140 laps the first day, and 160-plus on the second one. Basically, I wore the car out.
“They thought they would wear me out, but I wore the engine out!”
Consider all of the fascinating technical aspects associated with Zanardi’s control systems in his BMW racing machine, and then contemplate how the man who will pilot the car for hours on end at IMSA’s season opener might be the most incredible piece of technology inside the vehicle.
“These days, as far as my upper body, as far as my arms, it’s not that I’m stronger — I am probably stronger than I’ve ever been, but the reality these days is that I am built now in a different way,” he said. “All the muscles of our upper body are basically white fiber. It means, that you have very little blood reaching those muscles, because this isn’t the way Mother Nature designed us. We need a lot of blood in our legs because we use the legs to do everything, to move around.
“That’s why, not only we need strength in our legs, but we need the resistance in our legs. It’s like blood is what feeds our engines, with oxygen and glycogen. If you do not have enough blood reaching the muscles, the engine will stop. Not because it’s not sufficiently powerful, not because it doesn’t have the capability to stay on and to keep delivering that amount of power, but because the oxygen and glycogen that is reaching that muscle is completely insufficient to keep the muscle working, and so you stop. This is the problem normally for people.
“Everything I do through the course of my life, every day I do it with my arms, and it means that by using this muscle so much I have changed gradually the state of my muscle, turning my muscle into red fibers. Because I probably have developed a vascular system that is completely different and is now similar to what every human being has in his legs. This is why, these days I’m capable of enduring a movement that anybody could do, but for a short amount of time, where I can do it for like hours.
“Which is the reason why these days I can survive when I do an Iron Man [marathon], for instance. I stay engaged into things like eight, nine hours, and all I have is my arms. Yeah, this is the reason why — not because I am superman, not because I am incredibly strong, because you don’t need to be incredibly strong, but you need to be incredibly resistant, and this is what I am today. In comparison to an able-bodied person, it’s incredible, the amount of extra resistance I have, in comparison to an able body. It’s what I have to do — I have to do it with my arms.”