By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The 2019 edition of Roar Before the 24 At Daytona International Speedway commenced Friday, and the main headline around the paddock focused on two-time CART champion and Paralympic gold medalist Alex Zanardi’s return on American soil.
Zanardi will be co-piloting the No. 24 BMW Team Rahal Letterman Lanigan GTLM shared by John Edwards, Jesse Krohn and Chaz Mostert, in the Rolex 24 at Daytona Jan 26-27.
While the entry ended up ninth in class during both Friday sessions with a time of 1:45.642 from the second session being their best with Edwards setting the pace, Zanardi relished the moment of reuniting with his closest open wheel friends, such as reuniting with his former boss from 1996-98 Chip Ganassi and former teammate Jimmy Vasser.
“It’s really difficult. To explain very well my emotions, I would have to go to 24 hours,” Zanardi said on coming to Daytona during Friday’s press conference.
“It’s very special for me beyond what it means to be technically here, driving a beautiful BMW race car for such a great organization like the RRL team and to be mixing up in this particular field, which is always been something that I’ve marked on the things to do kind of book.
“Well finally, I’m here. So this is very, very special, but on top to be in the same paddock with a lot of friends and to be stopped basically every foot. From a different friend who I haven’t seen for a long time, it’s really sweet.”
The road to Daytona began during a Christmas conversation with BMW’s higher-ups down in Munich, Germany a few years ago when BMW Motorsport Director Jens Marquardt gave Zanardi the option of running one of two 24-hour races in the M8: Le Mans or Daytona?
Without hesitation, the 52-year-old Italian chose Daytona, due in most part of hearing his open wheel competitors praising North America’s most prestigious endurance event, and on Dec. 15, 2017, Zanardi was confirmed to run at Daytona in 2019.
“I grew up as far as my racing career in the United States, so I heard so many stories about this great event from drivers who had been my opponents in IndyCar, and had the privilege of participating while also competing in those days. I always wanted to be part of this event. No doubt in my mind, Daytona, that’s where I wanted to go.”
Zanardi added that he respects those who dreams about Le Mans as the endurance race, but it was a definite choice to compete in the “World Center of Racing.”
“(Marquardt) probably was thinking I’d immediately say ‘Le Mans’ because for a European driver, that’s a race that represents a lot, but I had no doubt in my mind: My pick was definitely Daytona.”
It’ll be Zanardi’s first time competing on the 3.56-mile road course as he’s previously driven the 2.5-mile oval when he competed in IROC XXI 22 years ago, when he brought home his aqua Pontiac Firebird in 10th out of the 12-car field.
The story of the former CART champion took a shocking turn after losing his legs in a horrifying crash at EuroSpeedway Lausitz on Sept. 15, 2001. Since then, Zanardi has defined the odds and been actively racing across Europe in sanctioning bodies such as WTTC from 2005-09, where he scored four victories and recently competed in two DTM races last year.
Outside of motorsports, Zanardi’s inspiration continued in the world of hand-cycling, and was an instant success. The former F1 driver not only racked up multiple gold medals in world competition, he won a combined total of four gold medals at the 2012 and 2016 games in London and Rio respectively.
After the three more sessions on Saturday, the No. 24 BMW improved their times with Krohn clocking in at 1:43.828 in session four.
In the third session, Zanardi made his first laps at the circuit, and ran 15 laps with the ninth being 1:44.558, ranking him 33rd overall out of 93 drivers that partaken the session.
Zanardi ran 11 more laps in the fifth session, clocking in a personal best of 1:44.340 on his fifth lap, 64th out of 130 drivers.