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Zanardi Steals the Show

TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

How do you say Superman in Italian?

Zanardi, obviously. As in Alex Zanardi, winner of Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Faster than a speeding bullet? You bet, if the speeding bullet is Bryan Herta.

More powerful than a locomotive? Sure, when the locomotive is a 10-car pileup in the temporary street course’s hairpin turn.

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Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? Piece of cake. The emotional Italian was practically lifting his car off the track as he leaped in his seat, pumping his fist, on his victory lap.

Zanardi, in what is becoming something of a trademark, overcame seemingly impossible difficulties on his way to victory. With only 32 of 105 laps left, for instance, he was 13th, so close to a lap down that he was running just ahead--well within spitting distance--of Gil de Ferran, the leader at that point. He had only sporadic contact with his pit because of a faulty two-way radio. And his steering wheel was cockeyed, thanks to a badly bent suspension member.

So, of course, he won. Just as he had last season at Cleveland, when a pair of penalties dropped him back to 22nd place. Just as he had in the final race of the 1996 season at Laguna Seca, when, in the most surprising move of many a season, he cut a corner on the last lap and passed a very startled Herta for the lead.

His finish at Long Beach wasn’t quite that dramatic but it sure was entertaining. In fact, CART’s defending national champion punctuated one of the most interesting races seen on the old street course with as pretty a pass as you could see in a tight corner. With the second-to-last lap just underway, he caught Herta--yeah, he was Superman’s foil again--in the short chute between Turns 2 and 3, out-braked the former Valencia driver, forcing him wide, then shot through the gap and the corner, into the lead and on to victory.

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Not that Zanardi planned it that way.

He started in the sixth row and spent the early part of the race back in the pack. Then things got worse.

When Michael Andretti bumped PJ Jones in the hairpin on the 26th lap, and Bobby Rahal got the nose of his car under Andretti’s, Zanardi stopped, so as not to hit the stalled Rahal.

“Scott Pruett was beside me and he was stopped too . . . Then he decided to go and ran over the front of my car and bent my steering. I called my pit but they couldn’t hear me so I just drove in. The steering arm was bent and even after [crew chief] Rob Hill straightened it with his hands, it was still, like, a half hour off center.”

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And there was more coming.

Four laps later, again in the hairpin, Gualter Salles ran into the back of Hiro Matsushita’s car, knocking it sideways smack in the middle of the driving line and causing what grew into a 10-car congestion problem. Zanardi’s was one of the 10.

“There was a big bunch of cars,” he said. “They were trying to tell me on the radio there was a hole I could go through, but I couldn’t hear very well. I tried reverse. Then I tried first. Then somebody hit me and I stalled. The CART crew came to move people out of the way but they decided to push other people first. They wanted to get the cars right in the way out first. I thought I was right in the way but I guess they didn’t think so. Anyway, they pushed a lot of other cars first and I lost a lap while I was sitting there.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t think it would be possible to win today. I thought maybe it was possible to get in the top five. But I didn’t think it was possible to get 20 points [for winning]. It’s amazing!

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“But I’m a warrior. You can’t ever give up. I never give up. I don’t say I had nothing to lose but I had less to lose than the people in the lead so I was pushing pretty hard.”

And making pretty good time.

When he made his last pit stop, his crew outfitted him with new tires, as well as fuel.

When Herta made his last stop, it was strictly a splash-and-go.

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So when he saw Zanardi’s car filling his mirrors, he pretty much knew what was going to happen.

“He was on new tires and I was on old,” Herta said. “He had a ton more race car as a result of that. It’s not a very nice feeling when you’ve got somebody behind you who’s a lot quicker. With eight laps to go and Alex coming on strong, I was lucky to hold him off till there were only two laps left.”

By then, Zanardi had figured things out too.

“I never thought I had a shot till I saw Bryan,” he said. “I said, ‘That’s got to be the leader.’ ”

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And Superman doesn’t play follow-the-leader.

“On Sunday, you have to take advantage of little things,” Zanardi said. “Everything went wrong all weekend, and suddenly it turned around. Sure enough, you need some luck. But today, luck was on my side and I put a lot of points in my pocket.”

Which is ridiculous, of course.

Who ever saw a body suit with pockets?

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