While the accolades quite rightly continue for Alex Zanardi's heroics in the Paralympics – where he scored his second gold medal of the week on Friday in another handbike race – Sept. 8 also marks the anniversary of perhaps the signature feat of the Italian's epic career. In the same way Dwight Clark's spectacular reception that won the San Francisco 49ers a 1982 NFL conference championship is still remembered by football fans as "The Catch," Zanardi's amazing, to-the-edge-and-beyond overtaking maneuver on Bryan Herta to win the final round of the 1996 PPG IndyCar World Series at Monterey's Laguna Seca Raceway is renowned 16 years later as "The Pass."
In the concluding chapter of his rookie season of Indy car racing, Zanardi had won his series-leading sixth pole and led early before a blistered front tire had enabled Herta to get ahead at midrace. But a late full-course caution enabled him to close the gap, and Zanardi's Target Chip Ganassi Racing Reynard-Honda appeared to have an edge on Herta's Team Rahal Reynard-Mercedes. The two ran in tandem over the final 15 laps on the ever tough-to-pass road course, but Herta left his rival no opportunities. Then came the last lap...
"At the turn before I passed him, Bryan probably took it a little conservatively and I was able to close on him going up the hill toward the Corkscrew," Zanardi recounted. "That's when I saw my chance. You go over the hill and the road turns right and then left into the Corkscrew, so I thought he couldn't see me. I knew I could surprise him. It was risky but it worked out."
The moved surprised more than Herta. As the exclamations of the TV commentators Paul Page and Danny Sullivan make clear in the video footage above, they – and undoubtedly most of their audience – couldn't believe what they were seeing. There really wasn't room to pull this off, was there? Indeed, Zanardi locked up his brakes at the apex and slid wide toward the wall, but his quick reflexes saved the day and he was able to hold his lead down the hill and on to victory.
Making it all the sweeter, teammate Jimmy Vasser, riding comfortably some 16sec back in fourth place, clinched his first series championship – and the first of many to come for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. A year later, Zanardi would also be crowned champion at the same track, in somewhat less dramatic circumstances. But his place in Indy car lore had already been cemented by The Pass, an effort that exemplified his unconquerable spirit and which RACER's IndyCar editor David Phillips aptly described as "the stuff of Verdi."
True to character, though, Zanardi paid tribute to his opponent in the flush of victory afterward. "The only reason I tried that maneuver is because Bryan is a great driver," he said. "I knew he wasn't going to do anything crazy to stop me."
It probably wouldn't have mattered anyway, though – Alex Zanardi was – and is – an unstoppable force.