A Great Career Possibly Tarnished

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It’s tough to keep a secret these days. Late Monday afternoon, we learned that Schmidt Peterson Motorsports was going to have a driver announcement for the Indianapolis 500 this afternoon at 2:00 Indianapolis time. It seemed to catch a lot of people off guard – especially the way it was billed: “…the addition of a major championship winning driver to its lineup”.

I couldn’t imagine who it might be. There were no rumors flying on Trackside last week. Then it hit me – it was Kurt Busch. He was already heavily rumored to be headed for the 500 this May. He was a former Sprint Cup Champion (actually, NEXTEL Cup), so it made sense. However, shortly after I got home from work Monday afternoon – I saw Jake Query tweet out that Sam Schmidt’s announcement would NOT involve Kurt Busch. Obviously, I would have to think a little harder.

I was certain Dario Franchitti would not be the name…or would it? Surely he wasn’t already thinking about disregarding his doctor’s advice. But Sam Schmidt had run a partnership before with Ganassi in earlier times. Maybe this was the driver. I wrote it off after only a couple of minutes. I also thought for a moment that it could be Tony Stewart, but that made no sense for a lot of reasons.

Suddenly, I knew I had the name – Sam Hornish. I’m not quite sure of his NASCAR commitments, but I believe he is free on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. Other than Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon and Buddy Lazier – he is the only other former IndyCar champion from the past decade that is still living and not fully retired. This made the most sense. I silently commended myself for figuring out this mystery so quickly. I even told Susan while we were eating dinner that it looked like Hornish would be coming back. Although I have never been much of a Hornish fan, I was glad to know that there would be another former 500 winner in the field.

It was after dinner that my bubble was busted. I checked Twitter to see it had blown up with news that Jacques Villeneuve would drive for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in this year’s Indianapolis 500. The reaction seems to be mixed. There are those that are giddy with excitement that a former Indianapolis 500 winner, former CART champion and a former Formula One champion is headed back to where his glory started. Others are a little more skeptical and are sad to see that it has come to this for someone that has such a storied career. Count me in the group with the latter. I don’t share the excitement others feel over this. I fear that this could be embarrassing for Villeneuve.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about athletes, and drivers in particular, not knowing when to stop. I think this is a perfect example of what I was talking about.

The glory days of Jacques Villeneuve began almost a generation ago. After finishing third in the 1993 Toyota Atlantic Championship, Villeneuve was a CART rookie in 1994 with Forsythe/Green. The second-generation driver from Quebec had the coveted Players Canadian tobacco sponsorship, which not only brought Canadian drivers up through the ranks, it also provided its drivers with one of the best looking paint schemes in the paddock.

But Villeneuve had more than a pretty car with solid financial backing – he also had a famous last name. His father, Gilles Villeneuve, was a Formula One driver who spent almost his entire career with Ferrari. He lost his life in 1982 during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix. His brother, also named Jacques, had a brief Indy car career in the mid-eighties that included a win at Road America in 1985 and one start in the Indianapolis 500 – 1986, finishing twentieth.

After an unspectacular debut at Surfer’s Paradise in 1994, Villeneuve made headlines for the wrong reasons in the next race at Phoenix. Hiro Matsushita had spun in Turn Four and was turned sideways. Although the yellow came out, Villeneuve did not appear to let up as he approached the turn. Suddenly he was staring at the sidepods of Matsushita’s disabled Lola. To say he T-boned Matsushita’s car is putting it mildly – he cut it in two. ESPN quickly cut away to a commercial. I remember thinking that Hiro probably had not survived the impact. To my relief, when the broadcast resumed – Hiro was walking away from the carnage.

I remember Derek Daly was the analyst with Paul Page on that broadcast. He was appalled that Villeneuve was calm and collected enough to refer to his “Player’s Reynard” in the interview. He was so cool in his interview that you would have thought that he had been through nothing more than an engine failure. That’s when I figured he either flat out doesn’t comprehend what just happened, or he has the perfect mental makeup to be a racer.

Villeneuve won a race during that rookie season – at Road America, the site of his uncles triumph just nine years earlier. He also finished second in his first Indianapolis 500, on his way to a sixth place finish in points as a rookie. The stage was set for a completely dominating season in 1995. Villeneuve won the season-opener at Tamiami Park – a street course in Miami. He also won the Indianapolis 500 after overcoming a two-lap penalty and Scott Goodyear passing the pace car. He went on to win twice more in winning the 1995 CART championship.

From there, it was on to Williams in Formula One. He finished second in the 1996 championship as a rookie, then won the World Championship in only his second Formula One season. In 1999, Villeneuve moved to BAR-Honda, which later became Lucky Strike-Honda. The best he could manage in his five seasons there were a couple of third place podiums. For the most part, this was a disastrous move for Villeneuve. The largest amount of drama he produced in this time was keeping fans guessing what color hair he would show up with. He bounced around for three more years before being let go in 2006 by Sauber in mid-season.

Since then, Villeneuve has tried his hand at NASCAR in Cup, Nationwide and trucks – all with little success. He has driven in various other series ranging from Brazilian Stock Cars to V8 Supercars, never coming close to the success he had in the mid-to-late nineties. Out of the car, he has attempted a music career and has even become a restaurateur. An optimist would say he is a man of many talents. Others would say he is a middle-aged man searching to recapture the glory of his youth.

Jacques Villeneuve will turn forty-three in April. He has not been in an open-wheel type car since 2006, when he lost his ride at Sauber. The man obviously had talent at one point, but lost his way somewhere along his path. For someone that sat atop the racing world at such a young age, it was tough to watch him become nothing more than a journeyman in recent years. After all, Jacques Villeneuve is one of only three men in modern times to have won the Indianapolis 500, an IndyCar championship and a Formula One championship. The other two in that exclusive club are Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi. The 1922 Indianapolis 500 champion, Jimmy Murphy, can technically be entered into that argument – but that’s a debate for another day.

It is not out of the question that drivers can still be very competitive over forty. AJ Foyt won his fourth Indianapolis 500 at forty-two. Al Unser was almost forty-eight when he won his fourth. Unser had already turned forty-six when he won his last CART championship. Mario Andretti was forty-four when he won his final championship. He also won the CART race at Phoenix at the age of fifty-three – so it can be done. But one major difference between Villeneuve and these drivers is that they were all active drivers. At best, Villeneuve has had spotty appearances in cars over the last several years.

There are a few that question Juan Montoya’s ability to be competitive this season. I am not among them. He is thirty-eight and hasn’t raced an open-wheel car for about as long as Villeneuve. But he has always been a full-time driver in that time. He has also been given additional testing time to get acclimated in this type of car. By the time the Indianapolis 500 rolls around, he’ll have four races and a lot of miles under his belt. He should be fine. I’m not sure I can say the same for Villeneuve.

Montoya and Villeneuve have short but impressive records in the Indianapolis 500. Montoya won the only 500 he ever drove in – the 2000 race, in which he dominated. Villeneuve drove in two 500’s – finishing second in 1994 and winning in 1995. At least one of those two is going to come away disappointed this year.

Assuming the rumors are true, this will all be confirmed at a press conference this afternoon. My biggest question about all of this is Why? Sam Schmidt doesn’t seem to be one to chase publicity stunts. Villeneuve is nineteen years removed from his last Indianapolis 500 start. Does he really think he can win in a one-off effort after being out of these types of cars for so long? It comes across as nothing more than a desperate mid-life crisis on Villeneuve’s part.

Jacques Villeneuve has a sparkling record in the Indianapolis 500. Like Brett Favre, who kept coming back after a stellar career with the Packers– first as a Jet and then a Viking – you hate to see that magnificent career sullied by the much more recent memories of an old man trying to recapture glory. I’d prefer to remember Jacques Villeneuve as that fresh-faced kid who didn’t bat an eye after driving through Hiro Matsushita’s car, then calmly went on to find glory just one year later.

This is going to be hard to watch.

George Phillips

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15 Responses to “A Great Career Possibly Tarnished”

  1. Apparently no more Russians were available. Without meaning to restart one of those fruitless arguments about what is wrong and what is right about IndyCar, I think most fans would agree that there is a huge disconnect between who fans would like to see get a seat and who the teams actually hire.

    The last time I saw JV in action he flat out pushed another car off the course at Road America. Nothing accidental about it.

  2. “Villeneuve is nineteen years removed from his last Indianapolis 500 start.” That startled me more than anything else in your article. Where does time go!

    • I thought the same thing. I can’t believe it has been that long. Man I’m getting old!

      I have a different take on this. When I see guys do this kind of thing it makes me smile a little because to me, there is nothing better than watching someones ego get smashed on such a big stage.

      Was anyone watching the Indy Lights race in Baltimore either last year or the year before, I can’t remember, when Willy T. Ribbs decided to race an IndyLights car? He was so out of racing shape he had to pull in before the end and they interviewed him. He looked like he had pushed himself way beyond what he was physically and mentally capable of. I think he would have had better results had he trained properly first but to just jump into an Indy Lights car and go the duration of a race on a street circuit is just insane. Baltimore too; probably the bumpiest tracks in the circuit.

      Maybe I am a little twisted but I thought it was hilarious to see how wiped out he was and you could tell by the look on his face he was seriously second guessing his decision.

      JV is a pretty cocky dude. If one is unaware of the denial process they are in ;what a better test than to get out on the track at this level and put that ego to the test. As long as a person can handle a someintes ego crushing result, I think it is highly entertaining. I think most race car drivers have an ego that can get easitly out of control if not kept in check. This is a perfect opportunity to JV to get a reality check.

      Who knows he might actually do well. I do however think some people overestimate the ability levels of themselves and underestimate the ability levels of many drivers in the IndyCar series. Especially the Europeans. Jacques is Canadian but he seems to share that attitude. Allthough Indy requires amazing levels of finesse and accuracy to be fast more than physical prowess it is quite the tall order to come in and think you will be immediately competitive at IMS.

      I by no means am questioning JV’s accomplishments as a driver but it always seemed as if Indy car racing was just a stepping stone for him to get to the pinnacle of F1 and he still to this day views it as a lesser than series.

      • billytheskink Says:

        That was 2011 when Ribbs hopped into the Indy Lights car at Baltimore, and yes, he was not remotely close to prepared to compete in bumpy, physically-demanding street race after such a long lay-off from driving and a couple of practice sessions.

        Another parallel might be former Grand prix winner Johnny Herbert’s 2002 Indy 500 effort. While I don’t think Herbert believed Indy would be a cakewalk (he did test prior to the 500), he certainly underestimated the difficulty and wound up missing the race when he could not get back to the Speedway for bump day.

  3. I’d much rather see Jaques than some random ride buyer. I think JV has some sort of sponsors. I would prefer to see him run a full schedule. Maybe this is a prelude to something more? JV has been trying to get back into racing for a long time. I’m not a fan of his; I was too young to have ever seen him win! but I’m not going to complain about someone who is at least a former winner re-joining Indycar and the 500

    • Can’t really disagree with any of that. I suppose we’ll find out in the next 45-60 minutes here, but I’m guessing that for Jacques to suddenly step back into an IndyCar, there’s probably a sponsor involved (i.e. Sam’s not funding this out of pocket, and Jacques probably isn’t doing this for free). In that case, there were probably two other options for SPM’s #3 car: 1) some other guy (or girl, I suppose) with a big check (and most of the folks that people are clamoring to see right now don’t come with dollars attached, so it’d be a lesser talent that we don’t care about) or 2) no #3 SPM car. Given those options, I’ll take Jacques, with the full knowledge that he’s probably going to scrape into the field in the mid-to high-20s in qualifying position, and then be lucky to finish around about 15th, even with some attrition. It’s another interesting storyline, so I’m for it.

      Welcome back, Jacques. Enjoy your stay, however brief it might be.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I’m not sure a poor showing in an Indy 500 one-off will tarnish Villeneuve’s career any more than his fruitless and largely half-hearted jaunts in stock and touring cars have. Really, I think the late career hanging-on of great athletes typically does little to overshadow their best accomplishments. Unless the athlete in question becomes a pariah, fans will almost always remember their best years more vividly than their worst.

    While I do not expect much from Villeneuve this May, I struggle to fault the guy for wanting to race and (apparently) assembling the funding to do so. Indy ought to welcome all comers, that’s what makes it great. No provisionals available, no granted/sold franchise required. If you have an entry and are fast enough, you get to race.
    Indycar and the 500’s current struggle is not that Villeneuve will have an opportunity to make the race, it is that many of the rideless fan favorites likely won’t get the chance to bump him out.

    And in the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a big Villeneuve fan. I do not despise the guy, but he is pretty far down the list of my favorite JVs. He’s certainly behind Jimmy Vasser and Jos Verstappen, probably J.K. Vernay too.

  5. I’m not strongly leaning one way or the other, but I think it will make for another good story line in May. Think about it, we will have 3 drivers in the field that are defending champions of this race (JV, JPM, TK).

    Add to that, another former winner with Lazier, and the speculation of Kurt Busch, that will make for one interesting ROP/Refresher Course this year.

  6. Love it. I feel like a kid again.

  7. You’ve explained your view far more eloquently than the trolls who found their way to the Racer.com article. I understand the concerns about JV’s stellar IndyCar career being tarnished, but he’s with a team that knows how to field a competitive piece at Indy: Sam Schmidt Motorsports. They collaborated with Bryan Herta Autosport in 2011 when Wheldon won (Tag was on the pole). And I agree with The Speedgeek; either A) we get an old champion like Villeneuve, B) we get a mediocre ride-buyer, or C) no 3rd SSM car. It’s a no brainer for me. We might get more viewers in the form of NASCAR fans who were intrigued by Jacques and want to see him race in his “natural habitat”. He was a fast learner in the mid-90s, and the track is just the same as it was in 1995. He may not finish 1st or 2nd like he did for Barry Green, but he might. He won’t anchor the field.

  8. Maybe he just needs money

  9. Yannick Says:

    Back in the mid-90s, I followed CART only sporadically. Villeneuve surely did some good work in his 2 years there. Then, when he came to F1, he was continuing with that. This impressed me since the previous CART-to-F1 transplant Michael Andretti had not been able to do the same during his time in F1. However, since I sided with Schumacher, I was never a fan of Villeneuve. And when Jacques was sacked from BAR-Honda in favour of Takuma Sato, I felt this was a good thing. Surprisingly, my favourite F1 team Sauber hired him a year or so later. That was a bit hard to cope with for this admirer of said team. If I recall correctly, Jacques was beaten by his team mates in both seasons he ran with Sauber, and his successor Robert Kubica won a podium in Jacques’ former car on debut. Now, it’s the same thing again: a not-so-favourite driver in a favourite team: ever since Alex Tagliani’s pole run at Indy, FAZZT/Schmidt is amongst my Top 2 favourite teams in IndyCar, and it often goes unmentioned that the car Dan Wheldon won the 2011 Indy 500 with for Bryan Herta Autosport was run in an association with Sam Schmidt’s team. The 3rd place in IndyCar points which Schmidt’s driver Simon Pagenaud scored last year should speak for itself: this is a team that might have a go at the championship this year, on less of a budget than the “Big 3″. Last year, when Buddy Rice pulled out of his proposed Indy 500 ride with Schmidt, it was the best thing to happen for both parties: even though Rice only would race for a winning team which Schmidt has since proven to be, he pulled out because he knew too well you cannot win with a BumpDay-CarbDay-RaceDay effort. And Schmidt had the chance to reunite with Katherine Legge who put this car (and her sponsors) into the field and ran rather quick while she did. So it made good business sense to do it like this. Thanks to Villeneuve’s sponsors, the 3rd Schmidt car is likely to have much more track time this year. And that’s what you need for a solid finish. So if he stays calm enough and out of trouble, which I’m sure he still knows how to do, Jacques Villeneuve is likely going to have a good run at Indy this year. I guess by finishing on the lead lap, he can more than prove he can still run those cars competitively.

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