- The Washington Times - Friday, May 28, 2004

INDIANAPOLIS — Alex Zanardi used to steer clear of parking spots reserved for the handicapped. He wouldn’t even walk through those spaces, never wanting to believe he might actually need one.

It was a racing superstition that became a tragic premonition.

“I was always afraid of that,” Zanardi conceded in a telephone interview from his home in Monte Carlo, where he begins the day by attaching a pair of prosthetics to what remains of his legs.

Zanardi is an extreme example — he lost both legs in a 2001 crash in Germany — but he’s hardly the only racer hobbling through life with aches and pains that will never go away. Just look around Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

There’s Rick Mears, barely able to lift his feet off the ground as he shuffles painfully through Gasoline Alley. There’s Davey Hamilton, teetering on crutches after undergoing surgery for the 21st time in three years. There’s Pancho Carter, who staggers around like “a peg-leg pirate”— his words — because of a right ankle that doesn’t work anymore. There’s Kenny Brack, still limping some seven months after a crash that nearly killed him. There’s Sam Schmidt, paralyzed from the neck down as he moves through the paddock in a wheelchair.

“Obviously, you don’t want something like this to happen,” Brack said hopping on a bike to avoid a tedious, painful walk from the garage to his camper. “It did, unfortunately. But you’ve got to move on.”

These guys paid a high price for the sport they love, sacrificing their bodies in the pursuit of speed. They can’t make it through the day without hurting — a brusque reminder that things will never be the same.

“No pain, no gain,” Hamilton said, managing to chuckle at his plight. “I’m not going to lie. I have my days. But I’m determined not to show it. I figure the less I complain, the better off I’m going to be. You just deal with it.”

Hamilton was seriously injured in a 2001 crash at Texas Motor Speedway, where the front end of his car sheared off at 200 mph. His lower legs were left exposed, enduring horrific injuries as they dragged along the pavement.

His feet were so mangled that the first doctors to see Hamilton figured amputation was the only option. After he was flown back to Indianapolis, surgeons took drastic steps to put things back together. Muscles were removed from his lower back to rebuild his feet. Bones were removed from his hip to repair his knees. Skin grafts were needed to cover the damage.

“They took a lot of my good parts to fix the bad ones,” Hamilton said.

Three weeks ago, he underwent another operation — a minor one but No.21 for those keeping count — that left him on crutches. That didn’t keep him from giving rides to fans and corporate bigwigs in a special two-seat Indy car, and it hasn’t quelled his desire to get back behind the wheel and race.

“That was my life,” Hamilton said. “I breathed it. I lived it. I ate it. I’d be lost without it. I don’t think I would have recovered like I did, or been as positive as I’ve made it, without knowing there was a chance to get back in the race car.”

Mears, who won the Indy 500 a record four times, is still hindered by debilitating injuries from a crash two decades ago. While he is thankful doctors saved his feet, his life was changed forever.

“I can’t walk barefooted,” he said. “That’s probably the one thing I miss the most — walking on a nice, freshly mowed lawn.”

Mears did his best to stay away from painkillers, not wanting to get addicted, but wound up relying too heavily on alcohol. In 2002, he twice checked himself into rehab. About the same time, his second marriage broke up.

“I’m sure [the pain] wasn’t all of it, but it sure didn’t help any,” Mears said. “You’ve just got to learn to deal with it and go on down the road.”

Carter was hurt while testing at Phoenix in 1977. The wreck damaged nerves in his back, leaving him with limited use of his right leg. New medicines have eased the pain, but nothing will eliminate it.

“A little too much race car rheumatism,” Carter said jokingly.

The costs from a serious crash can be enormous. The Indy Racing League provides medical insurance to the drivers — up to $1million in some cases — and many of them augment their coverage with policies provided by their teams or paid for out of their own pocket.

Still, some drivers can be left financially strapped, especially if they are injured early in their careers before they start making big money.

Zanardi won a couple of CART championships and earned a big-money contract in Formula One before his devastating wreck. He’s just glad it didn’t occur a decade earlier, when he was struggling to make his mark in F1.

“I think I had about $12,000 in the bank,” Zanardi said. “I know for some guys it’s been really tough. When you’re young, not only do you not have any money, you don’t think something can happen to you. I raced some races without insurance in the early days of my career. I didn’t think about it at all.”

At a minimum, Zanardi said, all drivers in the top-level circuits should have policies that would provide at least $500,000 for medical expenses and $1million for a permanent disability.

Although Zanardi doesn’t have any financial worries, the day-to-day struggle of life is another story. Since the limbs help to cool the body, he always feels like he’s standing outside on a scorching summer day. “I’m like an engine without a radiator,” he said.

And the pain? It never goes away.

“Did you ever go skiing? Did you ever have on boots that didn’t fit well? They hurt, didn’t they?” Zanardi said. “Well, multiply that by 20. That’s what it feels like.”

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