Villeneuve returns to race Indy 500, 19 years after victory

Jacques Villeneuve of Canada, driver of the No. 5 Dollar General Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda Dallara, poses for a photo after qualifying for the 98th Indianapolis 500 on May 17, 2014.

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS – When Jacques Villeneuve won the 1995 Indianapolis 500, he looked like a young boy. He looked so young, in fact, that Villeneuve laughs when he sees photos of himself in Victory Lane from that historic victory.

“I was a boy,” said the 43-year-old Villeneuve. “When I look at pictures from that time, I do look like a little boy and wonder how I was taken seriously back then.”

Villeneuve was taken seriously because of the way he competed on the race track. The driver from Quebec was fierce and determined and it was obvious his time in the CART Series would not last long. After he won the 1995 Indianapolis 500, it would catapult him to the 1995 CART championship.

And then it was off to Formula One, where he would win the 1997 World Championship.

Villeneuve would not return to the Indianapolis 500 before this year but competed in seven of the eight Formula One races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 2000-2007.

Canadian IndyCar driver Jacques Villeneuve celebrates his victory on 28 May 1995 after winning the 79th Indianapolis 500.

He also drove in one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2010, finishing 29th in the Dollar General Toyota.

Villeneuve is older and wiser now, and his hair and beard show shades of gray, but he still has a youthful look to him. And he is back at the Indianapolis 500 for the first time since he drove 505 miles to win the race in 1995.

Villeneuve starts 27th, the outside of Row 9, after qualifying with a four-lap average of 228.949 miles per hour in a Dallara/Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

“It’s great to be back in the Indy 500,” he said. “It’s still the fastest cars. The fastest track right now, the way the rules are made, and the biggest race in the world. So it’s still special. Things never are what they were when you first started here in 1994.”

Generally a driver with the name recognition of Villeneuve would generate tremendous attention in his first Indy 500 in 19 years. But, for the most part, he has had a quiet month at the Speedway while the regular drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series, as well as NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Kurt Busch, have received most of the notoriety.

“Flying under the radar? That’s how I like it,” Villeneuve said. “I’m not looking for the attention; I’m here for the racing. I love racing. That’s what I’m doing. Also, coming back after so many years, it’s better to be a little bit quiet when I get going.”

While this is his first Indy 500 in 19 years, he has been a near regular at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since the first US Grand Prix in 2000.

“I’ve done the Formula One race and did the Brickyard, also with Dollar General, so that is cool,” Villeneuve recalled. “The Formula One race was so different but it drew a good amount of fans that were coming for that race. It’s always been special coming back here.

“The Grand Prix of Indianapolis was fun. It looked like a lot of people were coming for the race and that was cool. It wasn’t as big as the Indy 500, obviously, but that was a good race. There was a little bit of mayhem at the start that shouldn’t have happened, but the track was quite good and the cars give a good race on the road course. It was a good show for everyone.”

His return to the Indy 500, however, has him in the back of the pack. Villeneuve remains unconcerned because he believes he has a good car for Race Day that can work its way through traffic.

Jacques Villeneuve (Williams FW19 Renault) during his championship-winning season at the 1997 Japanese Grand Prix.

“I don’t know why we didn’t have the speed in qualifying,” Villeneuve explained. “I was running flat and it was easy to be flat. We were quite trimmed but we did not concentrate on qualifying at all. We concentrated on race setup. We really trimmed the car on qualifying morning and it was really good when the conditions were cool. But we got out of the window and trimming the car down more it wasn’t going faster. We aren’t talking about a lot. It’s a tiny difference, but the engines have less power than 19 years ago, so if something is slightly off you lose the momentum. I really don’t know what the difference is but we really didn’t care about qualifying anyway.

“The car seems to be good. I think we have a good mechanical setup so that should be good for Race Day. I want to keep out of trouble early on because when you start in the back you never know what can really happen.

“In this race it doesn’t matter when you start. When I won, I was two laps down, but we qualified up front. It’s a race of pack racing now so it’s a little bit different. It’s not the speed you do on your own that matters.”

Throughout Villeneuve’s career, he is a driver that is not afraid to wear the “Black Hat,” although that’s a term the Canadian-native does not quite understand.

“I’ve always been a fighter,” Villeneuve admitted. “It’s not a question of being a Bad Boy; you are here to compete to race and you go for it. It’s not something that has happened consciously. I’m a racer and I fight to get to where I want to go. I always try to keep it clean. Mistakes happen but I purposely avoid doing anything purposely dirty. That is the key I would say.

“In NASCAR I didn’t do anything differently than anyone else was doing, but because I came from open-wheel the perception was made bigger.”

Team owner Sam Schmidt believes the addition of Villeneuve to his stable of drivers, that includes Simon Pagenaud of France and rookie Mikhail Aleshin of Russia, has been a valuable one, and enjoys working with the legendary driver.

“I think he has done a great job,” Schmidt said. “We never built this program around the expectations of sitting on the front row or leading every lap. He has a great mental attitude. He is not a Prima Donna. What I know in my three years of driving around this track, it’s not a physically demanding race; it’s a mentally demanding race. I, myself, could never get to 200 laps, and the fact he finished second and finished first, with the best two-year race average of anyone I’ve ever known, it was exciting to bring him back.

“It’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed working with him. I think he will be fine on Race Day. He needs to stay out of the junk and get to the end. Everybody has been really happy with where he has been. We, as a team, probably screwed up on qualifying, but now we are looking forward to Race Day.”

Villeneuve laughed when told that he is part of a United Nations of Racing, because of the diversity of drivers on Schmidt’s team.

Quadriplegic Sam Schmidt hits 100 mph at Indianapolis

“It is an international team and the one of the owners is Canadian as well,” Villeneuve said. “That’s fun. It’s a great team. We’ve seen speed. They won a race and had pole position here a few years ago. I think this team has a lot of potential.

“Driving for Sam Schmidt is great. He is passionate and the team is everything. That is always good. When you race you want to make sure the people are fully involved and that is how it is here.”

Villeneuve’s 1995 victory remains one of the most controversial in Indy 500 history. He had been assessed two one-lap penalties for passing the Pace Car earlier in the race. That meant he would have to complete 505 miles to win the race.

He was second behind race leader Scott Goodyear when the green flag was about to wave on Lap 191 of the 200-lap race.

Goodyear hit the accelerator and passed the Pace Car before it had entered pit lane. He was penalized by race officials but ignored the black flag. On Lap 195, race officials stopped scoring Goodyear and Villeneuve went on to win the race.

The bitterness of that loss is still felt in some ways by Goodyear, who is one of the color analysts of the Indianapolis 500 telecast.

“The last time I talked with Scott he brought the subject up and what he said was he made a mistake and he paid for it,” Villeneuve said. “That’s tough but that’s the way it is. Often, it’s the mistakes you make or don’t make. We all make mistakes, but sometimes they are more important than others; that’s all.

“The key is in life you get a few chances and you have to grab them. You also have to be lucky as well. But you have to believe in it and believe you will be lucky when it matters. That is why you can’t take risks every minute of your life. You need to decide when they are worth it.

“To run 505 miles to win the Indianapolis 500 – that’s what made that race fun to win.”

This will be Villeneuve’s only IndyCar Series race. He lives in Europe and competes in the World Rally Cross championship in Europe and does TV commentary for Formula One races.

Photos: 2014 Indy 500 starting lineup

He has enjoyed his time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month where fans continue to revere him as a former Indy 500 winner.

“The fans have been very positive,” Villeneuve said. “That is one thing that is great about racing in the United States. Once you have achieved something, the respect remains. It is really different in Europe where, as soon as you achieve something, the next thing you get brought down. Here, it is the opposite, so that is a nice aspect.”