Bill Auberlen and Alex Zanardi will be inducted into the Motorsports Walk of Fame in a public ceremony on April 7.
News of his induction left Bill Auberlen “beyond excited,” seeing as how, growing up in nearby Redondo Beach, he considered Long Beach his “home track,” one that fueled him to become one of the winningest drivers in sports car racing history.
“I never missed [a Grand Prix of Long Beach], in fact, I went to the first in 1975 as a kid,” he said. “I walked around with a tape recorder and I would record the sound of every car out there. I’d go home and listen to them at night. That sound, everything about that place, just became etched in my mind.”
Given the weight of those memories and the effect they’d have on the arc of his life–Auberlen says Long Beach “100 percent” contributed to him becoming a racer–it’s understandable that when he learned of the Walk of Fame honor, part of him had a hard time believing it.
“I thought, ‘How did they come up with my name?’ Because, you look at the names on that [Walk of Fame] list, [Mario] Andretti, [Roger] Penske, [Phil] Hill, and they’re legends. Beyond legends. They’re in the stratosphere of racing. Just to be close to them, well, I’m completely humbled.”
Humble is right, since Auberlen’s Walk of Fame credentials are obvious. In 2020, his 61st sports car victory pushed him past Scott Pruett to become the International Motor Sports Assn. (IMSA), winningest racer.
At 53, he is still racing–he just competed in his 500th race for BMW–with a victory total that is now at 63, among those being multiple wins at IMSA events in Long Beach as well as multiple victories at such high profile races as the 12 Hours of Sebring and 24 Hours of Daytona.
He says he has a lot of people to thank: crew members who have made him look good and friends who have supported him. But the first person he’ll mention in his induction speech will be his father/inspiration/”biggest cheerleader,” Gerd. An immigrant from Stuttgart, Gerd showed his son the racing way, first on motorcycles, then in cars. It was Gerd who took him to his first Grand Prix of Long Beach.
“My dad raced, so I raced,” he said. “He was the first person I emailed [after learning about the Walk of Fame induction]. He was so happy. He’s my biggest fan, and I’m his.”
Likewise, Long Beach remains at the front of his mind when it comes to racing. He said he remembers the first time he raced in the city, that the whole thing felt “like a homecoming, a dream” with many friends, family and neighbors coming out to watch him.
The only thing better, he said, was winning. In fact, his first time winning at Long Beach he and his entire team took the championship trophy to a local tavern and “partied all night long.”
“For me, the first time racing at Long Beach, that was a moment,” said Auberlen said. “But the first time I won there, that was an incredible moment.”
His induction into the Walk of Fame promises to be another.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Zanardi’s iconic victory donut after his initial Grand Prix of Long Beach victory in 1997. Zanardi would later say the donut was planned, that it just happened, something anyone familiar with the joyous spirit he brought to driving could believe.
“It was a moment of fate,” said Michaelian, who missed the first donut since Zanardi was executing it in Turn One as Michaelian was running to get things ready in the victory circle. “And yet, for anyone who knows Alex, it just kind of fit. He has such a glowing personality. He's hugely personable, which is what attracted so many people to him and not only made him a favorite with fans, but with other drivers.”
The year 1997 was significant for Zanardi, as he would win four other times and claim the CART championship. The following year he would win another seven races, including his second straight win in Long Beach.
Those wins were punctuated with more donuts which soon became not only a racing but cultural phenomenon.
“It’s gone on to be a signature for him,” Michaelian said. “You see it now at the end of every race, emulated by every other driver and, unfortunately, by a lot of people on the streets.”
The donuts became such a thing that before races, it became quite common for supporters to visit the Zanardi garage bearing … you guessed it. Zanardi and his crew would graciously accept the boxes of donuts, stack them where they could, and try to work around them.
A catastrophic accident in 2001 would necessitate the amputation of both of Zanardi’s legs. True to his driving passion, he yearned to get back racing in a car. When a pair of prosthetic legs didn’t make the grade for driving, Zanardi designed his own and got back to racing.
That same drive would lead him to compete in handcycling, a sport he would go on to win four gold and two silver in the Paralympic Games of London (2012) and Rio De Janeiro (2016).
Zanardi is recovering at home from an accident incurred during road training and will not be at the induction ceremony. In his place will be his racing teammate, and friend, Jimmy Vasser, a Walk of Fame member himself.
“I’ve been trying to get him [into the Walk of Fame] since 2000,” Michaelian said. “There was always something getting in the way. It finally got to the point that we really wanted to make this happen. I called Jimmy and talked about it, then we contacted Daniela, Alex’s wife, and she loved the idea. That got the ball rolling and Alex is very excited about it too. It’s something we’re very happy could happen. It was time.”