Alex Zanardi loves to play with the steering wheel and pedals on a race car. It is a love that has the second-year driver positioned to set a record this weekend and perhaps capture a championship by the time the new Championship Auto Racing League season is over.
Today, Zanardi, who has won four straight poles, will try to claim a record ninth straight front-row starting spot during qualifying for CART's season-opening event, the Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami, in Homestead, Fla.
"To get the record is very, very important, but you have to leave the dreams in your pocket when you're driving," said the 30-year-old native of Bologna, Italy. "You cannot have dreams interfering with your concentration and with what you are doing."
But dreams are what Zanardi has built his career on.
He is a former Formula I driver who got tired of competing in a sport in which only the best, veteran drivers with the best-financed teams had a chance at victory. It was Zanardi's dream to win races, and it was that dream he followed to the United States last season when car owner Chip Ganassi offered him a ride as the teammate of Jimmy Vasser.
Vasser went on to win the CART championship, and Zanardi won four races and six poles to finish third in the points race and be named Rookie of the Year.
It was a rookie performance surpassed by only Nigel Mansell and Teo Fabi. Mansell came to Indy Cars as world Formula One champion, won five races and six poles and the 1993 PPG Cup title; Fabi had four wins and six poles and placed second in the 1983 standings.
Along the way to his final win last season, Zanardi made another dream come true when he made a daring last-lap pass of Bryan Herta at Laguna Seca, Calif.
"I didn't decide to make that pass because it was a dream I had always had since I was a kid -- to win an important race in such a dramatic way -- but obviously, after I crossed the start-finish line, that dream came out of my pocket and came through into my mind and I was very, very happy," said Zanardi in his accented English.
"In those respects, I would love to brag that I got five poles in a row and nine straight on the front row. But obviously, I have to be concentrating and qualify the car well."
The move on Herta may be one competing drivers and race fans will never forget. Zanardi drove low inside Herta at the entrance to Laguna Seca's famed Corkscrew turn, bounced over the curb and onto the dirt at the outside of the corner, just missed the wall, came back onto the track and powered away to victory.
"I've never been passed like that; no one has," said Herta.
Now, about to begin his second season, Zanardi is acknowledged for his technical knowledge and his fearlessness.
"Alex's greatest talents are in setting up his car and then wringing all that's possible out of it," Vasser said.
That's what comes from playing with steering wheels and pedals.
Pub Date: 2/28/97