If you’re a new fan of motor racing, chances are good the name Alex Zanardi means nothing to you. While the Italian driver spent five seasons in Formula One (1991-94, 1999), his greatest success behind the wheel came in the American CART open-wheel series, where Zanardi raced from 1996-98, than again in 2001.

In 1996, Zanardi finished third in championship points, driving for Target Ganassi Racing. The next two years would see him take the CART championship back-to-back, before being lured back into the world of Formula One by Williams.

His 1999 Formula One season was dismal, and Zanardi’s best showing was a seventh place at the Italian Grand Prix. Out of 16 races, Zanardi suffered 10 DNFs, and failed to score a single championship point. For the 2000 season, his seat was given to Jenson Button.

By 2001, Zanardi was eager to return to open-wheel competition, signing with Mo Nunn Racing in the CART series. Overall, the season looked to be a mixed bag, with finishes as high as fourth and as low as 26th. Then came the race at Germany’s Lausitzring, where Zanardi had the lead with just 13 laps remaining.

Exiting the pits after a late-race pit stop, something went tragically wrong. Zanardi’s car swerved out of pit lane, traveling up the track perpendicular to traffic. At nearly 200 miles per hour, Alex Tagliani had no chance of avoiding Zanardi’s car; the resulting impact split Zanardi’s car in half and severed both of the Italian driver’s legs.

Although medical help was there in seconds, Zanardi lost nearly three-quarters of his blood volume in the aftermath of the crash. His survival was a miracle, but it’s his ongoing recovery that may be the most inspirational of all.

When Zanardi awoke to find both legs gone, one above and one below the knee, the story goes that he shrugged it off with a “Yes, but I still have my wife and son.”

In 2002, CART equipped a car with hand controls so that Zanardi could complete his final 13 laps at the Lausitzring; he did so at speeds that would have put him fifth in qualifying for the 2002 race.

In the years since, Zanardi has raced in Touring Car competition, but may have found his next calling the sport of paracycling. In 2007, after just a month of training, Zanardi finished fourth in the New York City Marathon’s hand cycle class. In 2009, he took first place at the Venice Marathon, followed by another win in Rome the following year.

Last year, Zanardi won the hand cycle class at the New York City Marathon, so for 2012 he’s on to bigger and better things: Zanardi will ride for the Italian team at this year’s London Paralympic Games.

We wish Zanardi the best of luck in competition, and hope that his story continues to be an inspiration for fans around the world.