When Mitch Farner was a boy, he convinced his mother to drive him down to his local Acura dealership and shine her car's headlights into the showroom so he could see the NSXs parked there. Later, he would get a job working at that dealership to be closer to the car he loved. When Farner was 18, he bought a crash-damaged 1991 NSX and repaired it over the course of a year. In his 30s, he bought the Championship White 1994 NSX that he now owns, which is well-maintained but not a garage queen, with 240,000 miles on its odometer.
For Farner, the Acura NSX has always been the car. Sometimes he'll even get under his 1994 and just lie underneath it in the garage, looking for Soichiro Honda's spirit in the engineering. So, when he began hearing from friends that a rare 1999 Zanardi Signature Edition NSX had shown up in a nearby wrecking yard, severely damaged, he knew he had to act.
“It made me sick to my stomach to think of it being picked over and parted out,” he says. “I knew I couldn't let this car die.”
Just 51 Zanardi Edition NSXs were built for the U.S. market in 1999, a celebration of Alex Zanardi's back-to-back victories in the CART series in 1997 and ’98. Serial number 0 was built as a media-loan vehicle, while serial number 1 was fitted with a European VIN, and presented to Zanardi himself. The other 49 cars were sold to lucky Acura enthusiasts who were quick enough to get to the front of the line.
While the NSX is most commonly associated with the late Ayrton Senna, the race car driver who helped fine-tune the car's chassis, any vehicle that bears the signature of Alex Zanardi is something very special indeed. Born in Bologna, Italy, Zanardi began racing karts somewhat later than other notable racing drivers, building his own kart from cast-off pieces and bits of pipe. An iron will and daring talent would see him rise to the pinnacle of motorsport: F1.
However, it was in IndyCar and CART that he would have his greatest success, including probably the most famous racing pass of all time. In 1996, at the final race of the IndyCar series, Zanardi took a risky and aggressive move through the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca in his Reynard-Honda, putting two wheels in the dirt and shooting right over the rumble strips. The pass is sometimes called the Zanardi Line, and is now banned, but it worked then.
Building a car worthy of such a hard-charging driver was a tall order. Like every other first-generation NSX, each Zanardi Edition was handmade in Honda's Takanazawa plant in Tochigi, Japan, a purpose-built facility that would later produce the S2000.
As a 1999 model, the Zanardi got the larger 3.2-liter V-6 and six-speed manual transmission of the later NSXs. The engine produced the same 290 horsepower and 224 lb-ft of torque as a standard NSX. However, most NSXs at the time were ordered with the T-roof and other weight-adding accessories. Compared to a contemporary NSX-T, the Zanardi was some 149 pounds lighter.
Weight was saved by starting out with a fixed-roof configuration with single-pane glass in the rear, replacing the power steering with full manual rack-and-pinion, fitting a set of lightweight BBS alloy wheels, installing a lighter battery, and using a lightweight rear spoiler.
Having improved the power-to-weight ratio, Acura next tackled the suspension. Shocks and springs were stiffened, particularly up front, with a larger rear stabilizer bar, and an overall reduction in ride height by 0.4 inches. Some special interior trim pieces were applied, and the signature plaque was fitted. Acura would build lighter NSX models in its home market, but this was the purest NSX sold here.
And now one was surely dead. Chassis #34 had been badly crumpled on the front left corner, with damage to both the suspension and the unibody. The roof and the A-pillar were buckled. Part of the NSX's engineering genius is its lightweight aluminum monocoque, but aluminum is far harder to repair than steel. The damage looked bad from afar, and was bound to be worse when things were opened up.
Worse, Farner knew this car personally. He'd met the original owner at an NSX meet in Ohio, and they'd stayed in touch—NSXs aren't exactly common in the Midwest. “When I first met him, he had his dog in the car, which made some of the guys raise their eyebrows. 'You're getting dog fur on the seats!' He just said, 'But I love my dog.' I knew that was the kind of person I could get along with, someone who actually used their car.”
Farner made a call to his friend, and the news wasn't good. Apart from the crash, other health issues would be keeping the owner in the hospital for months.
The prognosis for Zanardi #34 was also shaky. With just standard insurance on the car, it was being compared to regular NSX-T values, and there was pressure to just write it off and consign it to the scrap heap. Even some of the NSX diehards thought the best-case scenario was to rescue some of the unique parts like the suede seats. In some of the pictures post-wreck, it appears as though someone tried to unscrew and pocket the titanium shift knob.
Farner volunteered to negotiate on behalf of the Zanardi's owners, and hurried down to the yard to save irreplaceable parts like the signature plaque. Reaching out to the NSX community, he was able to source true comparison Zanardi Edition values and come up with a dealership valuation that proved #34 should be worth saving. After seven months of negotiation, the insurance company finally cut the check and the car was shipped to New York for repair.
“There's no-one else I'd trust to do this work,” Farner said, “Joe [Lomoriello] is one of the few people left who care enough to get things right, the way they would have been done at the factory.”
Poughkeepsie, New York, is perhaps not where you'd expect to take Japan's premier mid-engined supercar to be repaired. However, the team at Vince's Auto Body Works is highly experienced at this type of work. Joe Lomoriello owns an NSX personally, and cars are shipped here from all over. Out back of the shop you might find a right-hand-drive NSX from an overseas owner awaiting repair, and two enormous shipping containers full of spare NSX parts.
Parts, in fact, are an issue in repairing an NSX. The passenger-side airbag, for instance, is a backordered item with no release date. Once again, Farner pitched in, helping out with the missing details. While Nissan now offers parts for its R32 GT-R, and Mazda has a comprehensive parts program for the Miata, some NSX bits and pieces can be very difficult to find. A constant refrain in the community is, “Acura needs to support the original NSX better.”
Despite these setbacks, Lomoriello and his team completed a heroic fix, returning #34 to its former glory. With the original owner still unable to drive, Farner flew out to New York himself and personally drove the car back to Indiana. It wasn't his car, but it was still on the road. His enthusiasm and dedication had saved it.
On September 15, 2001, Alex Zanardi was involved in a horrific crash that resulted in the loss of both his legs. It was the kind of trauma that would have ended any ordinary racer's career, but Zanardi is no ordinary individual. He came back to race again, competing largely in touring car racing, and winning. He also became a paralympic cyclist, winning gold in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. In September 2018, he set a new Ironman world record while competing in Cervia, Italy. And in 2019, he will contest the 24 Hours of Daytona in a specially-modified BMW M8 GTE.
I'd like to think that Alex Zanardi would smile to see that the car that bears his name is also capable of weathering disaster, and emerging, phoenix-like, with its spirit intact. And I think he'd chuckle to see that, in the very last week of 2018, Zanardi #34 was sold to its second owner, one Mitch Farner of Indiana: a fitting reward for a lifetime's passion for the Acura NSX.