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Thrill of the Hunt

Zanardi Enjoys the Challenge of Starting in Back of Pack, Which Is What He'll Do in Long Beach After Qualifying 20th

April 08, 2001|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alex Zanardi knows it is easier to win a race by starting on the pole, staying out in front and out of trouble, but there's something in his adventurous Italian psyche that loves the thrill of coming from deep in the pack, clawing and scraping his way to victory.

His spirit will be tested today when he starts 20th, on the outside of the 10th row, in the 27th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

"There's a very fine line in racing between being a hero and an idiot," the two-time CART champ car champion said as he contemplated how he will approach today's 82-lap, 161.376-mile race around the twisting, 11-turn, 1.968-mile circuit across from the Queen Mary.

"If a daring move works, you can make a name for yourself, as I did that day in Laguna Seca. But if it doesn't, then you are the idiot."

It was at Laguna Seca in 1996 that Zanardi, then a CART rookie refugee from Formula One, took a shortcut across the famous Corkscrew turn, bouncing through the dirt, to take a victory away from Bryan Herta.

"Besides the two championships I won, the most memorable moments in my racing in this country were the win in Laguna Seca, one in 1997 when I fell almost a lap down in Cleveland and came back to win without the help of any yellows [caution flags] and my win here at Long Beach in 1998. For me that may have been the most thrilling of all."

In that race, Zanardi started 11th but lost a lap and fell to 18th before starting a dramatic comeback, catching Herta for the lead two laps from the finish.

"That was the day I heard people cheering for me over the noise of my engine. I came around the hairpin with only a few laps to go to catch Bryan and I could hear all the cheers. I knew it was for me because they always tend to cheer for whoever is coming from behind.

"I actually was thinking to myself, 'How can it be that I can hear people cheering? That can't be happening.' But the next time around, the cheering was even louder and I realized it really was the crowd I was hearing. That was a very special day. I was the hero."

Of course, there were times when Zanardi was the idiot too. Like when he was fined $25,000 and put on probation in 1997 for rough driving after knocking Herta off the road at Vancouver. Or the day at Mid-Ohio in 1998 when he was docked $50,000 for taking an "unjustifiable risk."

"Long Beach is my favorite race, it is the most important we have," he said. "I feel so lucky to be here again. Also, I feel lucky to be back doing what I have a passion for--driving a race car. If I were to turn things upside down again Sunday, it would be so special to me, but you cannot plan these things."

The elements are right for another wild ride up through the pack for Zanardi today as he will start deep in the 28-car field after being able to coax only a 100.245 mph lap out of his Honda-Reynard during a qualifying session Saturday that was intermittently rainy.

"It was a very strange session and there's just nothing you can do about the weather," he said. "The weather made it very tricky to decide on the exact set-up and traffic turned out to be a very big problem."

Helio Castroneves, in one of Roger Penske's red-and-white Marlboro Honda-Reynards, will start on the pole after a last-minute lap of 103.556 mph lap that bumped former Indianapolis 500 winner Kenny Brack off the No. 1 spot. Brack did 102.534 in one of Bobby Rahal's Ford-Cosworth-powered Lolas.

"We went up and down trying to find the set-up because of the weather," Castroneves said. "The track got much better this afternoon and the set-up was great for both dry and wet conditions. Since the sun came out toward the end of the session, I knew the last cars on the track would be fastest and, fortunately, I was one of the last ones out."

For most of the qualifying, it appeared that Michel Jourdain Jr.'s early lap of 101.809 would hold up for the pole when rain began to fall, forcing later qualifiers to go out on slower rain tires.

However, when the drizzles stopped and crews began to switch to slick tires, six drivers moved ahead of the young Mexican.

That scenario also caused Zanardi to slide down the leaderboard, from a solid seventh all the way to 20th.

"I was on my best lap when the third red flag came out [because of an accident] and the lap didn't count. My dashboard said I was eight-tenths of a second better than my previous lap. Despite everything I think we have a good car for the race. I'm hoping maybe I can do the same thing this year I did before. Hey, everybody can dream!"

Dreaming is one thing, but life is quite different now for the 34-year-old than it was when he came over from Europe in 1996 to become a teammate of Jimmy Vasser on Chip Ganassi's Target team. Then he was hungry for an opportunity to drive after a disappointing year in which his F1 Lotus team folded in midseason. He and his young Italian wife settled in Indianapolis and traveled together to the races.

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