According to the Associated Press, Alex Zanardi suffered major cranial injuries while competing in a national Paralympic cycling race when his handbike swung wide in a corner and came into the path of an oncoming semi-truck near the Italian town of Pienza. The two-time CART and Paralympic cycling champion is undergoing a “delicate neurosurgery operation” in order to repair “severe cranial trauma” suffered in the accident.
Police told the Associated Press that Zanardi was flown to Santa Maria alle Scotte hospital in Siena, Italy, via helicopter. According to the national coach, Mario Valentini, Zanardi was conscious and responsive once emergency responders arrived, but there is no word yet on his post-op condition.
Zanardi’s open-wheel career spanned the 1990s, including both Formula 1 and CART (later known as IndyCar). The Bologna, Italy native began racing karts as soon as he became a teenager in 1979, quickly working his way through Formula 3 and Formula 3000 before earning a seat in Formula 1 towards the end of the 1991 season. His open-wheel roots would become a strength in CART once he earned a seat with Chip Ganassi Racing in 1995, opening his first season as rookie of the year while finishing third in championship points. By 1997 and 1998, he had secured back-to-back championship wins. After flirting again briefly with Formula 1, Zanardi would make his fateful return to CART in 2001, setting the course of his second phase in life.
Starting at the back of the pack, Zanardi clawed his way through the field into first place at the 2001 American Memorial on the German track of EuroSpeedway Lausitz. With about 10 laps left, Zanardi took a dive into the pits for a last fuel top-off and re-entered the track ahead of Canadian Patrick Carpentier. Then Zanardi lost control of his Reynard Honda, spinning out on the pit lane exit as Carpentier came down the bank to enter the corner. The hit was monumental, and ultimately Zanardi would lose both legs to the crash.
Naturally, true racers are hard to defeat: Zanardi recovered and thrived as a Paralympic athlete, rising to become a champion handbike racer, even competing in full triathlons (using a wheelchair for the running portions). He also returned to motorsports, even completing the final laps of the American Memorial that he missed in the 2001 incident. With converted race cars using custom hand controls, Zanardi has competed in and tested for a myriad of road races, including World Tour Car Championship, DTM, and Formula 1.
We will update as we learn more news about his condition. In the meantime, enjoy this nearly 2-hour-long interview with Zanardi from Formula 1, which was released just two days ago: