For a man without legs, Alex Zanardi walks very tall these days. He lost them when malign fate came at him at 220mph while he was racing at the Lausitzring oval in Germany, four days after the 11 September attacks.
Having electrified America's CART series from 1996 to 1998, only to fall from grace when he returned to Formula One with Williams in 1999, Zanardi was now back in CART and leading as he rejoined the race after his final pit-stop. Only 13 laps separated him from his first victory in three years. Then he hit a small wet patch and spun. Alex Tagliani speared his car like a missile and, in one of the most horrific accidents in motorsport, Zanardi's legs were severed above the knees.
He doesn't remember the details. How the banking was so slick with his blood that rescuers struggled to reach his shattered car. How the tourniquets kept slipping off. How Dr Steve Olvey got him taken by helicopter to a clinic in Berlin with less than 10 minutes, and one litre of blood, to spare. "If I thought anything,' he admits. "Maybe I would have said, 'Ooh, it's gonna be tough to fix this one...'" It was cruel beyond words.
While it is extraordinary that he survived at all, it is even more remarkable is that he has returned to race BMW touring cars. Yet Zanardi's courage has carried him far beyond race driving. As a disabled sportsman he is a role model who inspires able and disabled alike. Surprisingly, he does not feel comfortable with that.
"For sure I am somebody to look at, but simply because I am a bloody good reference point, you know? Maybe that can help people in similar situations to put things back into perspective. If that guy is doing this, I can probably do that. He is only a human being after all; he is not magic.
"We all have hidden energies that come out whenever we need them. To say, 'Man, that guy is really brave. If I was him, I would kill myself,' is under-evaluating ourselves. Four years ago I would have said exactly the same, and look at me now. I've never thought of killing myself.
"It's true that it is very difficult to tell yourself there are people in much deeper shit than you are. But the first day in the rehabilitation centre I saw a kid in my situation, and his life went through my eyes like a movie. Growing up, going to school, being always the one needing help. Going to the disco, sitting while all his friends are dancing because he cannot do that, not finding a girlfriend. I mean, that's tough.
"For me it is a piece of cake in comparison, because I have my life, I have my wife, Daniela, my wonderful son, Niccolo. And on top of everything I am a known guy."
He admits that winning two CART championships before the accident made it less difficult to bear.
"When I walk on the street and people ask for an autograph, that takes away all the embarrassment. It is inevitable that your handicap creates distance because they don't know how to approach you. Eventually conversation goes back to the level where you are only looking me in the eyes. But it's in the human nature that the eyes will initially be on the legs.
"Until you put some trophies on your shelf you never have the sense of having achieved something. There would have been tremendous frustration without that. But success gives you confidence in yourself, even in daily life, not just to drive a racing car. So probably that confidence from the success I had helped me most."
Zanardi is an engaging character. His face is an unusual mixture of sharp planes focused around an aquiline nose and dark eyes, topped with unruly brown hair. He speaks in a sing-song voice with a nasal twang and near-perfect English. He uses the vernacular the way he drove race cars: fast and well. A big smile and a self-deprecating comment are never far away. Few drivers have genuine charisma, but he has it to spare. It shines like a beacon through his recently published autobiography, Alex Zanardi - My Story (Haynes, £18.99).
"Out of my book I think the good thing to understand is that while it was not easy at all it was also not that difficult, either. The way I faced my misadventure was with exactly the same attitude that I faced all my adventures in my life. And funnily enough, I had a lot of fun in my rehabilitation, because all the time I was making a game. To me, progress was as welcome as a race win.
"You want to see it good, it's good; you want to see it bad, it's bad. My mother is a really tough woman. But she always cries a little bit on herself, as we say in Italian. She wants somebody to feel sorry for her. And I hate that, because maybe I used to be like that. But then I had so many satisfactions in my career and my life that I don't have that form of weakness any more. Instead I have this allergy to people who complain about things!"
Two years after the accident Zanardi returned to the Lausitzring, to effect a symbolic completion of those 13 missing laps. Back in a car specially adapted with hand controls, he went fast to enough to have qualified fifth for that year's race. His last nine 220+ mph laps varied by no more than 0.174sec.
"I didn't want to leave that part undone. The fans saw me leaving two big traces of blood the last time, and there I was two seasons later, doing what I used to do. It was flat out, wide open, but I can't say pedal to the metal, because I didn't actually have a pedal..."
It spurred him on that some expected him to have lost more than just his legs. But Zanardi's energetic brain and indomitable spirit remain as strong as ever, providing uplifting proof that courage, determination and an unquenchable love for sport can take you wherever you want even after your darkest hours.Reuse content