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CART'S MARLBORO 500 / CALIFORNIA SPEEDWAY

This is No Chump-Change

Before Zanardi Leaves CART, There's Big Business to Take Care Of

October 28, 1998|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After Alex Zanardi clinched his second straight CART FedEx champ car championship four races from the end of the season, and shortly thereafter announced that he was going to return to Formula One next year, speculation arose that the feisty little Italian might skip the year's final race at California Speedway.

"Not so," he said. "There are a million reasons why I will race at Fontana."

That would be the $1-million first-place prize for the Marlboro 500 on Sunday.

"Besides, I am under contract until Dec. 31, so I am obligated to be there to race. I would never turn away from a race. I enjoy it too much."

If Zanardi wins, it will match the $1 million he will receive Monday night at the CART banquet in the Century Plaza Hotel, and give him a lucrative sendoff after three years' racing in the United States.

"Money is wonderful, especially now that we have a little baby, but what matters most is the winning, the competition, the excitement I feel when I get in a race car," said Zanardi, who won seven races in Chip Ganassi's red Target Reynard-Honda, including four in a row, to dominate the CART season just as he did last year.

"Racing is my passion, and it has been my good fortune to be with a team that gives me a chance to win races. That's the dream of every driver."

Next year, Zanardi, 32, will drive in Formula One for Frank Williams. His place on Ganassi's team will be taken by Juan Pablo Montoya of Colombia, a Williams test driver this season.

"It was a hard decision to leave Chip Ganassi," Zanardi said. "I would not have left if I had not been going to one of the best teams in Formula One. I had a great time with my team here, great results, great friendships, but in life, if you achieve something, you then need to try something else and hope to achieve that. That is what made me decide to return to Formula One."

That, and the fact that his wife, Daniela, was homesick for Italy while living in Noblesville, Ind., and the fact that they wanted to raise their son, Niccola, in the home country.

And too, Zanardi was anxious to discard the name 'Alex,' one that Ganassi had given him three years ago, and return to his real name: Alessandro.

In three years as a CART driver, Zanardi won 15 races and 10 poles in 51 starts. The only race he missed was last year's Marlboro 500 at Fontana where he suffered a mild concussion in two crashes during practice. His place was taken by Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, an Indy Racing League driver, who crashed hard during the race.

"When I came to Ganassi three years ago, I had never driven on an oval, but I learned to adapt, like a chameleon, to different situations. I like what CART demands. It is like the World Cup in skiing, it's not just slaloms, or just downhills, but to be able to win you must be competent in different events.

"Techniques are quite different from European racing. In Europe, the first corner is so important, you try to do everything at the start. In CART, you can be more patient and not be so concerned how you come out of the first turn. You learn to take advantage of other drivers' mistakes."

Ganassi, whose team has won three straight championships--Jimmy Vasser won in 1996--said Zanardi is leaving with the team's best wishes.

"I told Alex that we would be glued to our TV sets early Sunday mornings next year to see how he's doing," said Ganassi. "We are going to miss his sense of humor, his refreshing approach to racing, to life itself. His passion for racing rubbed off on all of us and we are going to miss him as a friend, more even than as a driver."

As long as he races, Zanardi's career in the United States will be linked to the impossible pass he made in Laguna Seca's Corkscrew turn two years ago to beat Bryan Herta on the last lap of the race. He still smiles at the thought of it, a daring move across the dirt that caught the attention of racing fans throughout the world.

"Ah, Laguna Seca," he said, his eyes twinkling. "I will never forget that because when you are a little kid dreaming, you always try to win an important race on the last lap, to pull off a move that will make everybody jump to their feet and scream. To actually do it was just incredible."

That was the final race of 1996, the day Vasser clinched the championship, and it set the tone for Zanardi's two-year run as CART's winningest driver.

Another incident, following his win in 1997 at Long Beach, also contributed to his popularity. That was the day he introduced his famous trademark "doughnut" to fans as a display of excitement over winning. The "doughnut," which consists of spinning his car in circles, causing black smoke to boil off the tires, did not please CART officials, but public response was so favorable that he continued it.

In what could be his final display of exuberance, Zanardi spun five doughnut circles after winning last Sunday in Surfers Paradise, Australia.

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