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Zanardi hopes to make Indy 500 dreams a reality

By Steve Keating

INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - Alex Zanardi's dream of racing in the Indianapolis 500 continues to burn and team owner Chip Ganassi said on Friday that he has a car for his former champion whenever he is ready.

But for the 46-year-old Zanardi, age, and not the fact that he is a double-amputee, is catching up with the two-time CART drivers champion who made an emotional appearance at the famed Brickyard for a reunion with Ganassi and his former team.

"This would not be easy to organize but I am still very passionate about the sport," said Zanardi, who had both legs amputated above the knee in a 2001 crash.

"I still have the capability to steer the wheel and if down the road the right opportunity would arise it would be hard not to be curious about it and look at it.

"At my age what you no longer have is the capability, the right focus throughout the season as when you are in your 20s. But if it is for one event then it would be a different deal."

Ganassi had a car for Zanardi on Friday, presenting the charismatic Italian with the lovingly restored Reynard he drove to victory at Laguna Seca in 1996 that confirmed his credentials as a future star.

"As we get older we would all like to make things happen in our lives that may or may not happen but you never know," Ganassi told Reuters when asked if he and Zanardi would team up for an Indy 500 bid. "But he has a friend with a team that always has a car for him."

Halfway through the final lap of the final race of the 1996 season, Zanardi made a daring move that is still referred to in IndyCar circles as "The Pass," diving under Bryan Herta in the Corkscrew section of the track then powering away for the win.

Zanardi finished that season as CART rookie of the year and would go onto win two series championships for Ganassi in 1997 and 1998 before jumping to Formula One with Williams.

"Out of all the highlights of my career Laguna Seca was probably the most emotional one and the one that actually changed my life," said Zanardi. "I was very lucky that day, don't get me wrong, but had I not tried that move who knows what my racing career might have been.

"It changed a lot of things, the perception of all the people watching, after that day I was a different guy. A guy to keep an eye on."

But Zanardi never found the success in F1 that he enjoyed in CART and in 2001 returned to Ganassi.

COMPETITIVE SPIRIT

At the peak of his career a bitter feud within the sport, which saw the series split into two series (CART and Indy Racing League), denied Zanardi the opportunity to test himself at the massive Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was at a 2001 race in Germany where Zanardi's IndyCar career came to a frightening end. He spun out while leading the race in the final laps and was rammed by Alex Tagliani, ripping the front off his car and severing both his legs.

After a long rehabilitation Zanardi's competitive spirit returned, winning a gold medal in handcycling at last year's Paralympics then announcing he was interested in returning to the cockpit and racing at the Indy 500.

With prosthetic legs, Zanardi has already returned to racing and has collected four wins competing in the European Touring Car Championships. But a return to IndyCars and competing at the Indy 500 will not be as straightforward.

The car would have to be designed with special hand controls while IndyCar rules require that a driver must be able to get in and out of the cockpit in a certain amount of time.

"I heard so many stories about this event that I kind of lived it somehow myself and I always had this dream of making real once in my life," admitted Zanardi. "It would be fantastic but it would also be fantastic to kiss Charlize Theron and this I guess will not happen in my life."

If Zanardi's Indy 500 dreams do not become reality others have already been fulfilled, although life did no exactly unfold as he played it out in his imagination as young boy growing up in Italy.

"I cannot say it was a dream of my childhood (to race at Indy) because my dream was to drive a red car at Imola and pass (former Formula One world champion) Jody Scheckter on the last corner on the last lap," smiled Zanardi. "But you know what, I had my red car.

"It didn't look exactly the same as the one I was dreaming of as a little kid but it was as beautiful and as joyful for me to drive it and I had my last lap pass although it was not Imola it was Laguna Seca.

"I had my great relationship not with Enzo Ferrari but with a friend named Chip Ganassi who changed my life.

"My dream came true."

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

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