INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Alex Zanardi received a hero's welcome at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the famed race track where he has never turned a single lap.
The beloved Italian was greeted warmly wherever he went Friday after he was feted by former team owner Chip Ganassi, who presented Zanardi with the car called "Old Midnight" that Zanardi was driving in 1996 when he made a legendary pass of Bryan Herta in the corkscrew at Laguna Seca.
Ganassi, the gruff Pittsburgh native not known for his sentimental side, had tears in his eyes several times during the presentation on The Yard of Bricks and again as he simply sat back and listened to Zanardi speak.
"To say the words `passion' and `commitment' and `excellence' and all the things I grew up with, that meant something, I think he embodies every one of those," Ganassi said. "It's not about the reality TV or anything with Zanardi. He embodies what we would like every athlete to be, every athlete we look up to. I think Alex Zanardi embodies every one of those qualities."
Zanardi lost both of his legs in a 2001 crash during a CART race in Germany, but has taken up hand cycling and won three gold medals in the London Paralympic Games last summer.
"He's had some real accomplishments since he's not been in racing," Ganassi said. "That's even more amazing is you're talking about an Olympian. That's pretty heady stuff to be at the top of one sport and then be at the top of another. I think there's not been enough said about that. Only someone with his fortitude could do something like that."
Zanardi had joked with former teammate Jimmy Vasser and Ganassi that if he won gold in London they'd have to give him a ride in this year's Indianapolis 500. Although the idea of Zanardi in the "Greatest Spectacle In Racing" ignited excitement among fans, it never came to fruition.
"I always had a dream of making it for real once in my life," Zanardi said. "It'd be fantastic. But it would also be fantastic to kiss Charlize Theron, and this will never happen in my life."
Still, Zanardi didn't totally dismiss the idea. He uses prosthetic legs to walk, and would need a car with hand paddles to compete.
"This wouldn't be easy to organize, but I want to believe I'm still very passionate for the sport," Zanardi said. "I still have the capability to steer the wheel. If down the road, the right opportunity would arise, for sure, I'd be curious about it and to look at it. Very synthetically."
Zanardi is now 46 years old, lives full-time in Italy, and admitted he wouldn't be as competitive as he once was.
"There's plenty of great drivers who'd die for an opportunity, especially for a great team like Chip runs," Zanardi said. "It doesn't need Alex Zanardi to be a competitive event. Just needs a good engine, tire, car. Because it's capable of putting together the greatest organization, I know it's possible. But at my age, you no longer have the ability to keep the right focus throughout the season as you do in your 20s because at my age, you have other things."
Zanardi spent four seasons racing for Ganassi in CART, winning 15 of 66 races and back-to-back championships in 1997-98. His win over Herta at Laguna Seca in `96 came the same day Vasser clinched Ganassi's first championship, beginning a string of four straight titles between Vasser, Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya for the organization.
Ganassi to this day credits Zanardi and Vasser as the foundation of his storied organization, which heads into Sunday's Indianapolis 500 trying to win the race for a second consecutive year.
"So much of who we are is because of this guy here," Ganassi said in prepared remarks during the car presentation. "I have always said that it takes a whole team to win championships but when you have Alex Zanardi as the heart of that team - everything is a little bit easier. There are million things to say about this guy as a racer and competitor but nothing compares to what kind of a human being he is. The mold was broken when Alessandro Zanardi was born."
Zanardi raced at a time of strife between the CART and IndyCar series, and CART teams did not participate in the Indy 500 until 2000 when Ganassi took a two-car effort to Indianapolis and won with Montoya. But Zanardi had moved on to Formula One in 1999 and never got his shot to run Indy. His only lap ever was as a tourist and he was mistaken back then for two-time winner Arie Luyendyk on the ride.
"I paid $1 and had the bus ride with all the tourists," Zanardi said. "A race fan just called me Arie Luyendyk. Chip as my witness."
Ganassi looks back on his time with Zanardi as life-changing for the owner because Zanardi's kindness and enthusiasm was infectious during a tough time for open-wheel racing.
"You see a guy that transcends all the issues that were of the day when we were racing in the mid to late `90s," Ganassi said. "There was a lot of political upheaval. It's just a breath of fresh air to see someone who transcends all of that and is about racing. That's what you see here today. That's why he brings out people like he does."
But Ganassi also noted that it made no difference Friday that Zanardi was on the CART side, pointing out the crowd that came to see the popular driver get his car. On hand were many of Zanardi's former crew members, as well as Vasser and Tony Kanaan, who broke away from preparations for the final practice to attend.
"It's nice he can come back and have the reception he had and be welcomed with open arms," Ganassi said. "That's the one thing about this place. Everybody who's ever been here in whatever capacity is welcomed to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with open arms."