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What actually happened in Alex Zanardi's 2001 CART crash?

Jake Nichol March 14, 2022
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Alex Zanardi lost both legs in a 2001 CART crash in Germany, but what triggered the accident and what has he gone on to achieve?

Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) was the precursor to today’s IndyCar Series. It fielded the remnants of the American open-wheel racing scene after most decamped to the Indy Racing League in the damaging split of the late 1990s.

In 2003, CART folded into Champ Car and in time merged with the IRL to form what we know today as IndyCar.

Big names raced in CART, with the likes of Formula 1 world champions Nigel Mansell, Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi and Jacques Villeneuve all taking a title.

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Another F1 driver who became a CART champion was Alex Zanardi. While his F1 career never took off, Zanardi was at home in CART, winning the title in 1997 and 1998.

However, a crash in 2001 ended the top-line racing career of Alex Zanardi.

What actually happened in that accident – and what did it inspire Zanardi to go on to achieve?

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Alex Zanardi 2001 crash

In September 2001, just four days after the September 11th terrorist attacks in the US, CART was in Germany for its inaugural race in Europe.

The venue was the Lausitzring in north-eastern Germany – on the two-mile tri-oval layout – think similar to Pocono.

After a period of green flag pitstops around lap 120 of 154 tours, Zanardi was leading in his Mo Nunn Racing machine from teammate Tony Kanaan.

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Championship Auto Racing Teams

On Lap 142, Zanardi pitted for the final time but, on exiting the pit-lane, lost control and slid through the grass on to the banking – where cars were approaching at full racing speed.

Patrick Carpentier narrowly managed to avoid Zanardi but Alex Tagliani was unsighted and couldn’t react in time. He hit Zanardi at 200mph, T-boning the Italian’s car.

The chassis split in two and Zanardi was gravely injured. Zanardi lost about three-quarters of his blood and both legs were amputated as a result of his injuries.

Photo by: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

He also suffered a fractured pelvis and concussion, but was alive.

The remainder of the race was run under caution, with 1999 Indy 500 winner Kenny Brack taking the winning flag. In 2003, Brack survived a 214g shunt at Texas Motor Speedway – the highest G-force a human has ever been recorded to survive.

Zanardi returns to the Lausitzring

After emerging from a medically induced coma, Zanardi left Germany at the end of October 2001. A year later, he returned to the Lausitzring to complete those final 13 laps he was unable to in 2001, using a specially modified car with hand controls.

He would later go on to win four Paralympic gold medals in London and Rio in the men’s para-cycling road race, road time trial (twice) and mixed-team relay.

In June 2020, he suffered severe facial injuries after a road accident while out in a handcycling race – from which he continues to recover.

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

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Jake can usually be found writing about or watching anything to do with motorsport – from Formula 1 to NASCAR to British Truck Racing. His work as a motorsport journalist has been published by the likes of Autosport, Motorsport.com and Motorsport News – all highly respected names. Away from racing he is a keen amateur astronomer, podcast listener and enjoys long walks in the park with his three dogs.