Roaring down the straight toward Turn 1, scouring along at nearly 200 mph, Patrick Carpentier heard the message crackling in his headphones: "Try to beat Zanardi! He's coming out of the pits. Go! Go!"
Alex Zanardi had been leading CART's American Memorial 300 for 18 laps, with Carpentier almost a half minute behind. Now, as Carpentier charged past the pits to his left, he saw Zanardi's red Honda-Reynard wiggling out onto the course—in a rush to win, Zanardi, as usual, was going too fast. Then Carpentier saw Zanardi's car skid onto the rain-slicked patch of grass on the outside edge of Turn 1. Saw the car spin in a circle and jump just once, high and hard, as it clambered from the grass back onto the course. Saw its slicks bounce on the pavement, its rear end swing round. Then the car stopped, its left side facing the feral whine of oncoming traffic.
"I saw him losing it and drifting out," recalls Carpentier. "I saw him spinning, and it was difficult to judge his speed coming onto the track, and I thought of going under him but I didn't, it was so fast, so I leaned right and brushed around him. I missed him by an inch."
Driver Alex Tagliani was chasing hard after Carpentier, about 10 yards back. He saw Carpentier sweep around Zanardi. Then he saw Zanardi's car in front of him, growing larger as it rose very fast toward him in the gray afternoon light. Tags had no chance. Instinctively, he flicked the wheel left, braced himself with his feet to the floor and heard himself scream, "Oh, no!"
Zanardi has no memory of what befell him next. It was just past 3:30 p.m. last Sept. 15 at the EuroSpeedway in Lausitz, Germany, four days after terrorists hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and of that afternoon the last thing Zanardi recalls is the introduction of the drivers by the public address announcer. The rest is a void. Nor does the 35-year-old Italian driver have any recollection of the moment nearly 20 laps before the crash when—after wending through the field from his starting position in 22nd place, finishing the kind of charge with which he used to sign his name—he passed his teammate Tony Kanaan and waved goodbye to him as he powered to the lead. As Kanaan recalls, "I looked over and thought, It's the old Alex. He's back."
That was the afternoon's common refrain. "Everyone watching the race said, 'Alex is back!,' " says Father Phillip De Rea, the CART chaplain. "No matter where I went, everybody was thrilled: 'Can you believe it? Alex is winning!' "
That the Zanardi of old had returned, after a nearly three-year absence marked by failure and struggle, was cause for euphoria all around the course that day. From his CART Rookie of the Year season in 1996 through the two championship seasons that followed, Zanardi had won over the galleries as no open-wheel driver had in years. By the end of '98, when he defected to Formula One in Europe, he was the most popular entertainer in the annals of that corner of motor sports: a warm, bright, wryly humorous soul who played the motor-racing press like a violin and indulged the crowds by driving like a madman and spinning victory doughnuts in blue-gray blooms of burning rubber smoke. The fans adored him. He had returned to CART in 2001, as rusty as an old flywheel, and it had taken nearly the entire season for him to rediscover the feel that would put him on the lead again.
He had found it that day in Lausitz, the first time he had led a CART race since 1998. He had the fastest car again. So he came hammering out of the pits and ended up sideways on the track.
Tagliani T-boned him at nearly 200 mph, the hard carbon-fiber bullet nose of his 1,550-pound missile striking Zanardi's car between the left front wheel and the cockpit with such force that it blew away the front of the chassis. The nose of Tags's car lifted on impact, like a powerboat bucking a wave. "I saw many parts flying around, and I came down boom-boom," he says.
Up in the grandstand, one of Zanardi's oldest friends from Italy, Marilena Cavalieri, noted the stillness, eerie and sudden, that descended on the track. "It was absolute silence," she recalls. "No sound. Like the world had stopped."