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Review of Alex Zanardi - My Sweetest Victory from RacingPress.com - November 20, 2004

The Pineapple's life story finally arrives stateside
By Earl Ma

"This writer witnessed Alessandro Zanardi race three times since the Italian F1 refugee first came to America for a chance at a new life. At the 1996 Marlboro 500 in Michigan (the first CART race for yours truly), the newly-redubbed Alex, in only his second superspeedway oval appearance, led handily until pancaking his Target Reynard against the turn four wall and sliding all the way to the front stretch grass. At the inaugural Grand Prix of Houston in 1998, the now 2-time CART champion about to return to F1 finished second in a race ended early under monsoon conditions, but more importantly, he graciously granted this first-time reporter an interview as he left an public appearance at Target, all the way from the autograph table to the awaiting limousine outside. Then, humbled by his one season back in F1 and coming off a year's sabbatical, the 2001 Grand Prix of Long Beach came towards the beginning of his uncompetitive and ultimately tragic return to CART. Driving for Mo Nunn, he dropped out with a punctured radiator courtesy of rookie Bruno Junqueira, driving the #4 Target car he had made famous.

In other words, I never personally witnessed any of the fifteen career wins which made Zanardi one of the biggest legends in CART history in the uncertain years immediately following the CART-IRL split. Yet each of the three aforementioned races held enough significance to at least warrant a mention in Alex's memoirs, which finally hit the U.S. market in October after first becoming a best-seller in Italy (under the title My Story, available as both hardcover and softcover) last year.

Despite the universally compelling nature of Alex's tale following the devastating events in Germany on September 15, 2001, and despite strong sales of the book in Europe, it still took this long to find a publisher on this side of the Atlantic. That amounts to another sad indictment of how far open wheel racing has fallen off everyone's radar in the states, but Bentley (far better known for automotive repair and driving manuals) finally picked up the slack, much to its credit. This edition expands upon the original by adding an extra chapter and photo spread covering Alex's 2004 Italian Touring Car season, driving a hand-controlled BMW with mixed results.

Alex specifies he did not want this book filled with excessive racing technical jargon, knowing one segment of his audience would have little or no prior exposure to motorsports. As such, the human interest side of this story reads very well, and even in those areas which review one race after another on the CART schedule, the importance of the many personal relationships developed between family, friends, team members, rivals, and even enemies resonates throughout.

Part of Alex's charm as known by his American fans lies in his innate skill at storytelling, with more than a dose of honest, self-deprecating humor, and if he is instead trying to relay a tall tale that grows with each revisit, he won't deny that (unlike, say, Leonard Miller). I learned of many historical anecdotes I had never heard of before: that as a schoolchild he built a replica of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway which his mother still has today; that the hilarious Honda TV commercial reenacting his first driver's test is indeed a true story; that unlike most drivers documented as guilty of the offense but who will never publically admit so, when he has the urge to go to the bathroom during a race he?just does it; that had he stayed as a Benetton test driver for 1993 as Flavio Briatore wanted, most likely he would've had the seat alongside Michael Schumacher for said driver and constructor's first World Championship season in 1994, instead of a partial year with the dying Team Lotus; that he witnessed Chip Ganassi throwing away his business card after their first ever meeting; and that he very nearly walked away from Ganassi after his rookie season in 1996, because the nickname ?Cheap? really does apply. Of course I didn't need Alex telling me so for me to know how painfully true that is, but hearing it come from Ganassi's most successful driver of all time brought an added smile to my face.

Alex also reminds readers that not all was lollipops and sunshine during his first CART tenure ? a period where with each additional win came more vocal complaints from his fellow competitors accusing him of rough driving. At times he even felt betrayed by CART officials, namely chief steward Wally Dallenbach. As someone who did not achieve self-described insider status until after Alex returned to F1, I cannot really comment on the veracity of these allegations, but it seems intriguing that a mild-mannered guy like Gil de Ferran, who publically seems to have not an enemy in the world, would have gotten under Zanardi's skin like that and vice versa. There are others ? Bryan Herta (who Alex admits, using different vocabulary, was emasculated by ?The Pass? at Laguna Seca 1996), Al Unser, Jr. and P.J. Jones. Later on, he does not have nice things to say about his Williams F1 teammate Ralf Schumacher. I wonder about what these individuals would say about Alex today given hindsight and his brush with death, but Alex seems to think P.J., for one, still must bear a grudge against him.

As revealing as this book proves, particularly about Alex's long recuperation period (with more scatological references than anyone could want), he does not share everything. I never get a keen sense of where (or where he thinks) his distinctive sense of humor or philosophy of life come from, or why these traits seemingly did not constitute public knowledge during his early F1 years. In early 1996 I figured he was just another F1 reject coming to CART ? nothing special ? whereas most others in America knew even less about him than that. It seems like his time stateside made him more of an extrovert, but I cannot say if that amounts to an accurate statement or not.

As he and Greg Moore spearheaded the ?lost generation? of CART drivers who never got to race at Indy (Moore's IROC crash notwithstanding), I'd like to know more about his thoughts towards the Brickyard (why he built a model of that instead of Monza like a young Mario Andretti ? who wrote the book's forward ? would have) and the CART-IRL split, which he barely discussed except to note his Mo Nunn teammate Tony Kanaan's dominance of the 2004 season. Speaking of IROC, he does not discuss his participation in 1997 at all, whereas the only reason I bothered to sit in the stands at Daytona for that race was to see him start on the front row with Dale Earnhardt. And he only mentions his trademark victory donuts twice ? the first not until Long Beach 1998 ? and there is not a single photo depicting the act. Nor does he answer a question I have asked in vain since he did his thirteen ceremonial laps at the Lausitzring in May 2003 ? why did he not do donuts on that day? There couldn't have been a more appropriate way to end that occasion in my mind; I've been told his new prostheses and how they work inside the car may have precluded that, but nobody has ever confirmed that.

Alex also surprisingly admits that after one failed attempt at playing the stock market, he never bothered with traditional investments again, despite the huge financial fortune he amassed between 1996 and 2000. So even though he theoretically needs never to work another day in his life and is by all standards monetarily wealthy, nearly all of that comes from just winnings, salaries and commercial endorsements (in other words, his massive medical bills should theoretically have wiped all that out). That said, he can still afford the finest, most technologically advanced medical care in the world, allowing him to experiment endlessly with all his different prototypical prostheses and allowing him to return to driving, skiing, and swimming that much faster. During Christopher Reeve's near-decade as a paraplegic he received a fair amount of public criticism that because of his fame and wealth, he could ?buy? attention and enjoy better care/hope for a paralysis cure more than countless others in the same situation, thus creating a scenario of false hope. I have not seen similar charges leveled against Alex publically or otherwise, but that is a subject I feel would have benefitted addressing in these pages.

Some other minor editing glitches exist, which may or may not be attributable to the Italian to English translation or dealing with a first-time author. Several times the narrative introduces characters by surname only, and it is never clear who they actually are. We learn about Arnd ?Meyer? and ?Kathyrin? Nunn and ?Don? Gurney (in the index).

Regarding how well this book works as a broader saga of courage and inspiration, I shall make two broad but appropriate comments. The U.S. edition has been in the marketplace for about a month now, but I have yet to spot a single copy in any of my local bookstores (hence my reliance on amazon.com). Instead, all I see is the oxymoronic life story of 14-year-old Kauai sharkbite victim Bethany Hamilton. For someone whose family initially shielded her from any public exposure while fretting over how to pay for her huge medical bills, she has become highly overexposed in a very short amount of time. And for someone who dreams of a future as a mature professional athlete, she still cannot maintain eye contact with the camera for any meaningful length of time in any TV interview, and she still always speaks with marbles in her mouth (compare that to Michelle Wie at one year younger). But if not for the likes of Alex, Dr. Francisco Ferri and the team of specialists who frequently redesigned his limbs so that they could be more waterproof and allow him back into the ocean functionally, she might have never made it back onto her surfboard anywhere as quickly as she did. I know which one of the two I regard as a true hero (even though in his own words, he says he is ?not Superman?), and I know which one of the two I'd rather see doing endless book signings in Honolulu.

Some of you may know I have faced a very serious and very much ongoing medical crisis over the past few months, and while each frequent trip to the hospital reminds me there are many others around in much more dire circumstances than myself, the experiences of Alex Zanardi from September 25, 2001 to the present demonstrate that as well. As much as I may not like admitting so, the surgery I expect to face is beneath trivial compared to just about any single operation Alex endured from the moment his car exploded, and that's something I'll have to keep in the back of my head over the coming months. Having incurred numerous medical bills during my Month of May in Indy that my health insurance only partially covers, I can fully empathize with his complaint over paying $640 for an antibiotic prescription from an area ER. Just because you're stinking rich doesn't mean you're not entitled to gripe over charges like that.

Much has changed in the decade since Alex Zanardi first left F1, a seemingly defeated man destined for the footnotes of history books. Instead, he rewrote them. While he may no longer have a career as a driver in a top-flight series, he is still able to race cars competitively as well as do most physical feats he enjoyed prior to his disability. And like Ayrton Senna before him, he now has the rare ability and wherewithal to translate his fame and wealth ? with all the good and bad accompanying both ? into a power capable of benefitting mankind at large. While Senna did not live long enough to personally realize these goals, efforts like My Sweetest Victory enable Alex the medical miracle to do just that. For that reason alone, no one else's story over the past decade ? or any that could follow in the next (i.e., some turgid Earnhardt title) can amount to anything anywhere as compelling."

RacingPress.com review of Alex Zanardi