We may be used to post-race donuts all over, from NASCAR to Formula One, but they weren’t always the default celebration for racing drivers. Alex Zanardi is most often credited with making donuts a common gesture during his CART days. Here’s how he also lifted the spirits of an entire team in the process.

“I don’t know what possesses him to do anything, to this day,” Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told me over the phone when we were talking about Zanardi. Hull and Zanardi both worked together on Ganassi’s CART team in the late 1990s.

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It all started with the 1997 Long Beach Grand Prix. According to Hull, Long Beach has an incredible fan following and atmosphere that really makes the teams feel welcome and appreciated there. Zanardi felt as if he needed to give back to the fans somehow after the race, so he decided on a bit of show.

So, after the race was over, Zanardi laid down a beautiful ring with his car at the end of the pit straight.

The donut was so popular that he did donuts (plural this time) again after his second win of the 1997 season at Cleveland. Per the LA Times write-up of the weekend, Cleveland was a spectacular win for Zanardi where he had to fight back to the front of the field after problems during the race forced him to the back of the pack—a full lap down from the leaders.

Opponaut teampenske3 recalled that CART officials were not amused with Zanardi’s donuts, as he did them in the pit area. It was too close to reporters and photographers, so CART laid down the law—suggesting that a fine might be coming Zanardi’s way if he did them again.

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The team, however, didn’t mind these donuts as much as Zanardi thought they might. Hull explained that CART teams used to take out the cars’ engines after every race, much like NASCAR does now. (This could also explain why NASCAR drivers often do such beautiful donuts and burnouts after every race!) His team didn’t care about the extra wear and tear from Zanardi’s crowd-pleasing stunts like they would today, when an IndyCar engine has to last for multiple race weekends.

Zanardi won again at Michigan International Speedway and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, but refrained from laying down any post-race rubber—likely in the interest of keeping CART happy.

By the time Zanardi clenched his third win in a row at Road America, however, the temptation was too good to resist.

Zanardi found a large run-off area outside a turn at Road America with enough space to lay down several big, smoky rings before continuing back in to the pits. Beautiful.

Road America was Zanardi’s last win of the year, and thus, his last donuts of 1997, but it was enough to give him the 1997 CART World Series Driver’s Championship at the end of the season. That’s worth spinning your tires over!

“I realized at one point that CART was right, that that could have been a little bit dangerous, especially for the photographers and all the journalists who were waiting for me in the winner’s circle,” Zanardi told the Associated Press. “So I tried to do it with a little bit more attention to safety at Elkhart Lake.”

It didn’t go over as smoothly as he wanted with CART, but it was worth it for the fans.

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“At first, it was just a way of of celebrating a great accomplishment when we first won the race in Long Beach,” Zanardi explained to the Associated Press. “Then it was amazing because all the fans fall in love with that and I start to meet a lot of enthusiastic people that keep asking me to do it again. Sometimes, I just do it.”

Whether CART liked it or not, “I’m gonna make-a the donuts” became Zanardi’s schtick, delighting fans at every race where he could pull off a win.

One of Zanardi’s best smoky endings was at the Detroit Grand Prix in 1998. The race on Belle Isle had an opportunity for shenanigans that was too good for him to pass up. Zanardi’s personal friend, Paulo Barilla, was at the race. The Barilla pasta company was one of Zanardi’s sponsors, and they had a huge hospitality suite at the end of a long straight.

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After winning the race, Hull recalled that Zanardi slowed down to what seemed like a crawl as he adjusted his brake bias into full-on hoon spec. Chip Ganassi himself even radioed over to Zanardi, “That might call for a donut.” Oh, yes. Donuts were happening.

Zanardi then proceeded to lay down a set of donuts in every wide run-off area on the way back in to victory lane. According to Hull, one set in front of Barilla’s hospitality area was so meaty that you could barely see the car for the tire smoke.

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CART was supremely annoyed that Zanardi postponed the post-race proceedings at Detroit, but Zanardi had developed a trademark too popular to quit. The fans overwhelmingly loved seeing Zanardi do donuts after every win.

Even the marshals loved seeing him go around, lighting his tires up. After a win at Portland International Raceway, Zanardi accidentally stalled his car in the run-off area as he was about to let some donuts loose. Marshals came over and helped push-start the car so that Zanardi could do his signature celebratory move.

Still, CART felt as if they needed to crack down on this. According to Hull, CART official Bill Luchow told Chip Ganassi that if Zanardi did donuts at the next race in Cleveland, he would be fined $50,000. Ganassi’s response? Fine away. If he wins the race, he’s doing donuts.

Sure enough, Zanardi won the race and the team paid the fine.

Zanardi donut mania didn’t just make fans’ day—it made the entire paddock a little happier. Hull recalled fans bringing over boxes of donuts to the Chip Ganassi Racing team before each race. The hauler would be stacked with boxes upon boxes of delicious pastries, which were shared among crew members and fans alike.

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Alex Zanardi was a pioneer in some respects with these defiant little celebrations. He was the first person to really bring the donut into American open-wheel racing, and brought it from being an occasional moment of hoon into a regular, accepted thing. Racing didn’t need to be a stuffy, serious affair—it could be fan-friendly and really celebrate the cars.

When asked if he’d like to see more donuts in IndyCar, Hull said he’d love to do it now, except that the IndyCar engines need to do about 2,500 miles before they’re swapped. They have to last longer than they did back in the CART days, and donuts and burnouts aren’t the easiest on engine components. That’s the one drawback of cost-cutting measures like that, I guess.

That being said, donuts weren’t the only reason Zanardi uplifted everyone else around him in the CART paddock. He not only thrived on competition, but Hull says he created a culture of never saying no to doing better. “He set his mind to things he knew he could do that others would find impossible,” explained Hull.

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Hull said that Zanardi fit the mold of every champion he’s encountered while working for Chip Ganassi Racing: very process-driven, but always positive. Those traits certainly helped Zanardi bounce back from a life-threatening accident in 2001 where he lost both of his legs, and part of what makes him so cherished by fans and team members alike.

How did Zanardi celebrate after he returned to racing and claimed his first World Touring Car Championship win in 2005? With donuts, of course.

[H/T teampenske3 for sparking the idea for a more in-depth interview!]


Contact the author at stef.schrader@jalopnik.com.