I would like to think that everyone reading this (of a certain age) can remember where they were and what they were doing upon first hearing Alex Zanardi had lost his legs. I was initially in denial that a racecar driver would lose his legs, then I was in denial that someone could be in that crash and not die. In the last decade, the shock has worn off and we have all gotten through the five phases.
Today Zanardi is both alive and kicking. No, "kicking" is not a sick joke; Zanardi literally designed his own prosthetic legs. Along the way, four World Touring Car Championship races, the New York City Marathon, and three Paralympic medals have been won: two gold and one silver. One should remember that Zanardi won those medals at 45 years old and most of the athletes were half his age. Hopefully, those medals will forever end the questions on the status of racecar drivers as athletes.
Alex Zanardi is better than you. That's the unavoidable truth. Unless you won more medals, at an older age, with fewer limbs, you have no argument. Even then, you would still be behind by about four WTCC wins.
Zanardi is currently investigating how to race in the 2013 Indianapolis 500 with hand controls. Hand controls can be tricky as they are often inconsistent from one vehicle to the next. While finishing his 13 laps at the Lausitzring (that name just feels right), Zanardi had to use his prosthetic leg to work the brake pedal; without knees and ankles, that requires pushing off of one's hips. When he test drove a Formula One car, he had to keep his left hand on an accelerator lever at all times and only used his right hand to steer. Neither arrangement would work well in a 500-mile race.
The best layout I can devise would arrange throttle, brake, and upshift as right-hand paddles (arranged top to bottom) and clutch and downshift as left-hand paddles. It seems like an elegant solution in that one can start moving from a hill, "heel-toe" on downshifts, and never take hands off the wheel. The major flaw I see is that there is no real feel for the brakes. If there is air in the brake fluid, there is no way to feel a soft pedal as the hydraulics cannot connect directly to a steering wheel paddle.
Before any such steering wheel can be built, it is important to consider various emergency scenarios. For starters, how fast can a man with no legs get out of a burning open-wheel car?
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