Weekly Roundup: My Sweetest Victory Edition

The first time I saw the man in the wheelchair blasting across an empty lot behind the first-turn infield grandstands at Daytona, his hands firmly grasping an odd sort of single-wheeled scooter that pulled the wheelchair along behind it, his longish black hair in electric-current agitation, my attention was focused on the machinery involved. By the time he crossed my field of vision a second time, doing every bit of twenty miles per hour and correcting each skittish twitch of the chair over the parking-lot gravel with a practiced countersteering motion, I took a closer look, noticed that his legs were missing rather than simply immobilized, and realized: It’s Zanardi. Sure enough, when the chair came to a halt at the base of the grandstand stairs, I recognized him by both face and manner: impassive, confident, comfortable in the skin he still owned.


Nothing surprising about the man’s presence here at the “Roar Before The 24”, of course. He was driving a car. A sports car, not an IndyCar like the ones in which he had become famous. Earlier in the day, in one of Daytona’s “radio rooms”, a journalist had asked him if he would ever drive IndyCar again.

“Would you… like to kiss Charlize Theron?” Zanardi had replied. Why yes, the slightly startled reporter had said in response. I suppose I would. And surely he wondered, if only for a moment: Is that something that Zanardi can bring to pass, for me or for himself?

“Well, it is not going to happen, is it? I would like to drive an IndyCar again,” Zanardi then offered, both personally rueful and professionally buoyant, “but it is not going to happen.” When the journalist in question relayed this exchange to me, after all the various classes had qualified and there was nothing left to do but gripe and gossip, I found myself struck by the secret poetry of what was surely a tossed-off response.

After all, each of us starts his life as a creature of nearly infinite potential. There’s nothing to say that we won’t become the President or drive an IndyCar — or kiss Charlize Theron, for that matter. As we age, however, we perform the reverse alchemy of potential into reality, gold into dross, marked by an inexorable but steadily accelerating drumbeat of doors closing, one after another in rapid sucession. Had he been in a mood to be forthright rather than friendly, Zanardi might have asked his interlocutor: Will you ever drive IndyCar, you sixty-something fellow with your aches and pains and with the vast majority of your life behind you? No? Well, neither will I. That door is closed for both of us now; the difference is that yours closed slowly, outside of your attention, while mine was slammed in my face.

Not that Alex Zanardi has much respect for the idea of not being able to do something. Immediately after coming to a halt at the base of the stairs, approximately fifty feet away, he flung himself headlong from his chair to the concrete. Like a yokel I gasped at this. Then the man grabbed both handrails from below, swung his body above them, and began walking himself up, one hand at a time, in the manner of a gymnast on parallel bars. The speed of his travel, in this fashion, was only slightly slower than what you or I might accomplish on foot. As a display of raw athleticism and strength, it was frankly intimidating.

Upon reaching the top of the stairs, Zanardi performed a pair of additional acrobatic motions and landed perfectly upright on a chest-high aluminum table, all the better to watch the prototypes do their thing into Turn One. Which he was eventually able to do, after posing for pictures and shaking hands with over a dozen race fans, spouses, and miscellaneous children. I sat next to him the whole time but said nothing, having decided that the most respectful and friendly thing in this case would be to act like he was just another spectator. Just keep your mouth shut, Jack! It was more difficult than I would like to admit. I was seized by the notion that I would be able to say something meaningful to him, yet I could not, in my own head, articulate what that might be. I have felt this way in dreams, and perhaps you have as well. I took photographs of the cars as they sped by, conscious that Zanardi would be in them, but also careful not to be one of the many folks simply pointing both finger and lens in his direction.

About twenty minutes later, a uniformed Daytona security officer appeared. His task: to bounce us from the grandstands. “Guys, that gate wasn’t supposed to be open for practice. I’m sorry, guys… Mr. Zanardi, I’m sorry, you have to leave too.” We filed down the stairs in a dejected line, first the young, then the old, then the tragedy-stricken. “It was great while it lasted,” I opined, and Zanardi seemed to nod in agreement. About two minutes later, as Danger Girl and I trudged out of the soon-to-be-closed gate towards the pits, he zipped by to our left, crouched over his chair like a MotoGP rider, eyes forward, completely focused on the future.

If you are a racer or a race fan, you probably know all about Alex Zanardi and his larger-than-life accomplishments both before and after the crash that took his legs. If not, I’d recommend My Sweetest Victory, which will fill you in and then some. The Netflix-style summary: Superbly gifted and dedicated racer endures tragedy, goes on to accomplish virtually (but not, as it turns out, literally) impossible things as a Paralympic athlete. Oh, and he also wins a pro race or two after the fact, using hand controls.

Yet that summary reduces the man to nothing more than an inspirational story, when the truth is so much more complex, and interesting, than that. You see, Zanardi lost his legs because he made a mistake behind the wheel. He was not an innocent bystander, a victim of circumstances, a helpless pawn. He messed up. In that single horrific moment, quite a few doors closed for Alex Zanardi, all at once.

If you have ever made a terrible, life-changing mistake in the space of just seconds — certainly I have, at least three times — then you know that sick-from-the-feet-up feeling that seizes you afterwards. You’re there bleeding out on the street or looking at your mangled body in the hospital or slouching with your hands cuffed behind you in a police car and your mind starts to twist and warp around reality until you almost become convinced that you can reverse time and change what has happened. That hopeful dementia can last for seconds, or it can last for months. For some people, it never completely vanishes.

It has been said, regarding the creation of poetry in the traditional iambic-pentameter, heroic-couplet mode, that the first line is the gift of God and the second is the work of Man. I think of that when I consider the process of making, then recovering from, one’s own catastropic mistakes: the first part is an unwelcome gift from our personal demons and the second is the effort of our better selves. The trick, if there is one, lies in taking equal responsibility for both. Even if that mistake will define you for the rest of your life. Even if some people will never forgive you for it. Even if, when all is said and done, you cannot forgive yourself.

In Winning Through Intimidation, Robert Ringer called himself “The Tortoise”. In a world filled with the beautiful, the brilliant, the #Blessed-fortunate, and the merely lucky, Ringer realized that he would never be any of those things. “But if you slow down for just a moment,” he stated, referring to everybody who had started ahead of him through some accident of fate or birth or genetics, “I’ll pass you.” This is what I’ve learned about making big mistakes: you have to understand that you’ve put yourself at the back of the pack. It doesn’t matter where you were before, how brilliant or successful or simply healthy you were. Your reality has been adjusted and you are now in what racers call Dead Fucking Last. So you have to be a Tortoise. You have to trudge along without stopping, work harder than everybody else for lesser results, suffer more failure and heartache, expect more disappointment. The key thing here is that you can’t quit. Not for a moment. If you do that, everyone else will keep going without you.

That is the only virtue a Tortoise has: he doesn’t quit. When I watched Alex Zanardi drag himself up those stairs, I knew that I was in the presence of an exemplary Tortoise. I respect him for that, more than I respect him for the Corkscrew pass or for any particular victory before or after his crash.

At the end of the month I’ll be making an announcement regarding this blog, my professional future both in and out of the auto business, and an opportunity I’ve been given to do something truly great on a grand scale. Some people will say that I don’t deserve it, because I’ve made too many unfixable mistakes. Other people might say that it is long overdue. That’s certainly what I’m going to say.

This is what I hope you’ll say, and what you will see: an old Tortoise, reaching a finish line simply because he didn’t know when to quit. Perhaps a second-rate turtle, particularly when compared to the Alex Zanardis of the world, but stubborn enough to keep crawling regardless. You have to be comfortable in your skin. I’ve heard that’s an attractive quality, particularly to women. So… does anyone know where I might find Charlize Theron?

* * *

Brother Bark offered a look into the future. I offered a look at some surprisingly venerable cars of the past.

43 Replies to “Weekly Roundup: My Sweetest Victory Edition”

  1. Joe

    That this zanardi fellow exists with the outlook he has is a bright spot on humanity and it’s optimism, I see this guy doing what he does and know that I am a failure, that I have underperformed, and that I am my own worst enemy……..

    Reply
  2. Roamer

    Calling it now: R&T have asked you to take over as EIC. I want to be able to say you’d gotten a seat with a pro racing team – a Prototype ride would be awesome – but that would swerve well into the realm of the ‘hopeful dementia’ you spoke of.

    Reply
      • Roamer

        higher still: Secretary of Transportation! Jack secretly has a four-year plan to have us all commuting in IMSA Prototypes.

        Reply
        • hank chinaski

          Weaksauce! Francis has outworn his welcome, and Rome is nice this time of year.

          BTW, are we talking ‘Devil’s Advocate’, blonde locks, daisy-dukes Charlize or ‘Thunder Road’, shaved head, one-armed, stronk wahmen Charlize?

          Reply
    • John C.

      If it is EIC of R/T, C/D, M/T what a challenge that would be. At this point for any of them, a new EIC might be the last as the corporate overlords must be itching to pull the plug on the print editions branding the last EIC a loser. What a challenge!
      So what to do? I would get back to basics. Less arty photography and moderns trying to convince that they are Jack Kerouac. Lose all the myriad unpaid interns and desperate freelancers that have the smell of death. The few writers should have come from the automakers because contact with the automakers is vital and they would be valuable to get more of the automakers ad dollars back to the print edition. Ad pages being the real product. The few writers left should then be throwing the fancy parties themselves for the automakers that tie them in and give a window to the fancy lifestyle lead by David E Davis, Tom McCahill, and Brock Yates in the glory days as imagined by then readers. Bet it would be pretty cheap to have a small but fancy office in a classy old Detroit building with a few pretty copy girls with drink carts coming around at 5. The Corporate overlords should also be regulars at the 5 oclock parties so they won’t want the party to end.
      Have your real budget be slightly below what comes from above. Make sure your business plan is set up to under promise and over deliver. Then cross your fingers.

      Reply
  3. Patrick King

    Wow! One of your best Jack!

    And inspirational. As one of those sixty-something fellows listening to the “inexorable but steadily accelerating drumbeat of doors closing, one after another in rapid sucession,” I had planned attend the Roar but my aches and pains had my watching Marshall Pruett’s YouTube reports instead. Never again! I’ll definitely be at the Rolex.

    Oh well, I did spend a week driving the Nurburgring when I was twenty-five. Seems like yesterday.

    Also, an intriguing final two paragraphs. I look forward to your announcement.

    Reply
  4. Brian

    Thanks for sharing the story about Alex Zanardi–and your experience in facing life challenges as well–as more people need to have that “tortoise” mindset. Some have it, and some do not, but it’s such a valuable virtue, that it deserves more attention and study. It doesn’t come from the pharmaceutical industry or from pop-psych, feel-good pep talks: as you stated, it comes from a determination to never quit. Ever.

    I credit my faith and my parents (who led by example) for forming a *never quit* mindset in me. I wouldn’t have been able to recover from a life-changing accident nearly 40 years ago without it.

    Reply
  5. NoID

    Good article on the big FCA cars. I can attest to the hauling capacity of the Challenger. I’ve used them to deliver driveline parts on numerous occasions, and aside from having to lift heavy stuff over the lip of the trunk it’s not much worse than using an SUV. The trunk is huge, and if you lay the rear seat down you get what seems like acres of usable cargo space.

    Side note from a recent episode of schlepping parts: The Challenger Hellcat Redeye Widebody hooks up really nice with an extra 300 pounds in the trunk. I can’t comment on how the extra weight impacts quarter mile ET…

    Reply
  6. ScottS

    “At the end of the month I’ll be making an announcement . . .”

    Nothing like a little intrigue to start off the new year!

    BTW, Bark M is the only thing holding TTAC together the past year and the only reason I still visit the site at all. That was a great article to wrap up 2018. The really intriguing question is what will save TTAC in 2019?

    Reply
    • sgeffe

      Hopefully this blog remains in some form or fashion. Great content missing from TTAC. (Bark is helping to hold things together.)

      Whatever happens, best of luck to Jack in your new endeavors.

      Reply
  7. -Nate

    Very good Jack .

    Some of us never were anything but Tortoise’ in the first place, we keep plugging along .

    -Nate

    Reply
  8. Widgetsltd

    I came across this quote today. I’d say it fits. Congratulations!
    “Every man must patiently bide his time. He must wait — not in listless idleness but in constant, steady, cheerful endeavors, always willing and fulfilling and accomplishing his task, that when the occasion comes he may be equal to the occasion.”
    – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

    Reply
  9. Tyson

    Jack, I was at the Roar as well on Friday, and Zanardi zipped in front of me between the hauler and the BMW garage area as I was wandering through with my family. I would have loved to shake his hand and introduce myself, but in the odd time in my life when I have been close to celebrities, I leave them alone. I figure the last person Alex Zanardi is looking to meet is me! That wheelchair/scooter contraption he has is quite the rig.

    My kids loved seeing the race cars and walking through the garages, even if they didn’t know Zanardi or Alonso.

    Reply
  10. Rich

    This might be the best thing I’ve ever read of yours Jack. And that’s up against some stiff competition! Mind you, how many times before have I thought that?

    Anyway: Looking forward to what’s next for you – well deserved, whatever it is

    Reply
  11. Rick Soloway

    Several extremely enjoyable turns of phrase in this great Zanardi article. Well done.

    Congrats on whatever opportunity has arisen for you-well deserved. Just yesterday, after reading a great Sam Smith “Smithology” column in R&T, I wrote him an email praising his style, and suggesting that he and you be regular video partners. I hope the new gig is in an area that I’ll be able to enjoy your work. Love it.

    Reply
  12. John E.

    As I’ve said in various communications, you’ve brought me around Jack! Consider me a fan of your writing. Best wishes in the New Year.

    I particularly enjoyed this article, on several levels that include observations about Alex Zanardi, you drew me in too (with the ‘closing doors’ observations), and about your next phase opportunity. I’m looking forward to your announcement and I hope it is something we can continue to share.

    On Alex Zanardi at the Roar, this may add some perspective for many of us who just don’t know his current involvement:

    Reply
  13. Compaq Deskpro

    I’ve heard of Zanardi before, but he is an inspiration. The kind of man that makes you say to yourself “I can’t complain, and I have no excuse”.

    I’ll keep shifting to weight to my left leg everytime I walk down the stairs so that my knee hurts and buckles with every step rather than “2/3’s ing it” comfortably, jumpropes will graduate to box jumps, its not like I’m going to hurt myself or anything. All video games are sold off, no more weed, trudging through a math textbook. I see the way the poor are obese and sit in traffic and live paycheck to paycheck to live in a VR game while the rich bicycle to the cafe and eat organic food spend free time working out to become strong enough to lift things they will never have to. I know which side I want to be on.

    Reply
  14. Shrug

    Now that Scat Packs can be found under $30k all day, I am MIGHTY tempted to buy one for a daily driver when it comes time to replace my EcoStang. While such things as “gas mileage” and “respectability” are nice, I desperately miss having a V8. On top of that, owning something as anachronistic as a giant V8 stuffed into a giant two door car with a 6 speed stick shift just really appeals to me.

    I cannot imagine such a setup being available for forever. I cannot imagine being allowed to drive one on public roads indefinitely either, come to think of it. I just want to experience that at least once. And I’m at the crossroads age now where I can still throw away money on dumb shit without having to worry too much about the future, but that particular window is closing faster than I’d like to admit.

    Make mine B5 Blue with the shaker hood and the super track pack. Make me feel like I’m king of the road (or at least of the work parking lot) before it’s time to succumb to whatever greyscale appliance awaits me in the future.

    Reply
    • Mike

      New Scat Pack chargers cannot be had for $30k, they start at $41k including destination and noone qualifies for all the rebates.

      Reply
      • Shrug

        Correct, but thanks to the glorious depreciation of mid-level Chrysler products you can find them on the used market for hilariously cheap now.

        Reply
    • Compaq Deskpro

      I’m seeing 2 year old base R/T’s with the 5.7 and manual for high 20’s, that will likely be my next car. It seems they don’t put manuals in Chargers.

      Reply
  15. Tyler

    That’s a remarkable, and accurate, description of fucking up. I found it to be an out-of-body experience. I simply departed reality and waited to learn what would happen to that sorry bastard who lied to everyone who mattered to him for years / failed to yield at a stop and hit those folks / and-so-on.

    The scab I’ve had to pick has been recognizing that, whatever the exact circumstances and proximate cause of the fuck-up may have been, the real fault lay in the thousand-odd similarly shitty choices that preceded it. The only real differences between all those indiscretions and The Thing That Happened were the stakes and the consequences.

    But anyway: thanks for taking the time to describe what comes next.

    Reply
  16. Daniel Sharpe

    I’m the tortoise still at the back of pack. I keep eatting the lettuce along the way.

    Congrats an the new adventure Jack!

    Reply
  17. Mike B

    First, I feel obliged to point out that at least from my perspective, and I imagine many others here, you’ve already “made it” and walked (or limped) right through many of life’s most interesting doors. They may not have always been wide open, but with a knock, or a little push, they budged. Perhaps some doors you wanted to walk through have closed for good, but different ones still seem to be unlocked.

    Choices, not fate, lead us through a maze with an end that no one knows is real or imagined. Maybe the end just gets farther away. Whatever it is that lies ahead for you I’m sure it’s not the end.

    Considering the new opportunity has some effect on this blog, I predict a full time effort at one of the following:

    1) some video series/hosting role, knowing how plugged in with NBC some of the in-touch journalists are

    2) A senior role at R&T, which would not only be appropriate but also make sense with the reference to reaching some sort of finish line in your career

    3) Director level involvement with one of the new programs at Hagerty, since they’re scoring some good talent lately

    Congrats on the big news and remember, even if you’re just limping through doorways there are guys with no legs who still move fast.

    Reply
  18. rwb

    I’m excited to hear about the acquisition of the jackbaruth.com property by Hearst Communications, and the upcoming pivot to become a premium online destination for luxury, travel, and lifestyle!

    Reply
    • scs

      “you sixty-something fellow with your aches and pains and with the vast majority of your life behind you?”

      Ow. True, but, ow.

      Reply
        • scs

          Man, those asterisks could spell a lotta different stuff… like my two oval track Cavaliers? Or worse. Yes, I am blessed. Two Camaros! Two 240zs! Two IH Scouts! I’ll be loading them on the Ark soon.

          Reply
          • Ronnie Schreiber

            That gives me an idea for a dystopian Red Barchetta kind of story where a guy is packing up his enthusiast cars in a semi trailer and heading off for the automotive equivalent of Galt’s Gulch.

  19. ComfortablyNumb

    To me, the most inspiring part of Zanardi’s story is the Simple Green Safety Team. They were able to get to him, stabilize him, remove him from the wreckage, and get him to a trauma unit. He lost both legs and 90% of his blood, and he survived. Humans are f’ing amazing.

    I imagine most tortoises have someone in their past who stopped traffic to make sure they got across the street safely.

    Reply
  20. AoLetsGo

    With my apologies to Metcalfe and all the other “real” poets

    Downward we march to the beat of slamming doors
    March we must, least we be dead on the floor
    Eyes forward ears open
    Find those doors that can still be opened
    Be brave be strong
    Your journey maybe short but you can still go long

    Reply
  21. Ronnie Schreiber

    About plugging away, a couple of years ago, I was trying to decide whether to commit myself to buying 100 pickups for the Harmonicaster project. It was a major financial commitment for me and I was deliberating on pulling the trigger.
    I’d proven the concept more than 20 years ago, but I had to wait until someone in the harmonica industry started making reeds out of steel, not brass/bronze, to start developing an actual product.
    While I was dithering about the pickups, my son, my only son, Moshe, whom I love, said to me, “Dad, it’s really inspiring the way you never gave up on the idea.”
    I replied, “Great. Now if I give up I’ll disappoint my son.”

    Speaking of the Harmonicaster, the much-improved Mk II version is in production and can be purchased at http://www.harmonicaster.com.

    Here is British harpmeister Will Wilde giving the Mk II’s prototype a whirl:

    Reply
  22. Harry

    I am excited to hear about whatever the future holds for you, especially if it is more for me to read.

    In the meantime perhaps you could give a recommendation on how to stay apprised with what is going on in the automotive world? I am not boycotting TTAC, it just isn’t providing much insight and the junk/good ratio is too high to sort through.

    I watched the Simpsons for years after it stopped being great, and I have been checking in on TTAC for years in much the same way. It is time to find something else.

    Reply
  23. Eric L.

    >this blog … and an opportunity I’ve been given to do something truly great on a grand scale
    I feel like these two things won’t be compatible. RIP RG, but all good things come to an end.

    On the other hand, you’ve never seemed like someone who shied away from writing whatever they feel like, despite knowing their employer/source-of-income reads their work.

    I’m glad you have the opportunity to do something you consider truly great, you deeply, deeply cynical man. Thumbs-up emoji.

    Reply

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