It has become a tradition in American motor racing, almost a pre-requisite before driving to Victory Lane. The "donuts", the popular circular burnouts done by drivers after winning a race, have become ubiquitous in NASCAR and IndyCar victory celebrations. But it was not an American who elevated them to their present status.
Alessandro "Alex" Zanardi may or may not have invented the donut, but it is he who elevated them to their present status. Some people mistakenly believe Zanardi did them his entire career, but in fact, it was not until 1997 that he developed his signature celebration.
At the 1997 CART Long Beach Grand Prix, Zanardi took his first victory of the '97 season, winning from second on the grid. He celebrated by doing his first set of donuts. The crowd in Long Beach enjoyed the scene immensely, and so Zanardi did it again after completing his "burn from the stern," coming from dead last and a lap down to win at Cleveland.
But this time, CART officials were none too pleased, especially given that he did it in the pit area near reporters and photographers. After hinting at fining the driver, Zanardi refrained from doing donuts following back to back wins at Michigan and Mid-Ohio. However, the following race, he brought back the victory celebration at Road America.
After the race, he said, "I realized at one point that CART was right, that that could have been a little bit dangerous...So I tried to do it with a little more attention to safety at Elkhart Lake."
The sanctioning body was still miffed, though, and CART threatened to fine Zanardi for "reckless driving," earning the series comparisons to the NFL, which at the time had begun cracking down on "excessive celebrations" following scores.
However, Zanardi, cavalier as always replied, "If they fine me, it was worth it."
A year later, following a NASCAR race, one of the commentators noted of the victor, "Oh, he's doing a Zanardi." And so the legend was born. Alex himself did several more donuts en route to winning his second consecutive CART championship in 1998. And drivers like Dale Earnhardt brought the celebration to NASCAR, where it has become a mainstay of modern driver celebrations.
The basic principle is easy, according to the Italian: "Just stop the car and press the throttle a little bit, release the clutch quite brutally and the wheels start to spin. Then, you just turn the steering wheel as much as you need and the car starts to spin."
Through the years, many drivers have done it. But none will ever be the original "Donut King."