A Great Career Possibly Tarnished
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.