NASCAR 2011: Jacques Villeneuve is a single dad with global interests
August 17, 2011
Jacques Villeneuve, driver of the #22 Discount Tire Dodge, speaks with the media prior to practice for the NASCAR Nationwide Series Bucyrus 200 presented by Menards at Road America on June 24, 2011 in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
It’s fine to go through life without personal assistants, Jacques Villeneuve was saying recently.
But it is a whole lot more hectic.
“I’m just a guy with two little boys who’s busy running his life, taking care of his bills,” Villeneuve said with a chuckle from his Montreal home, his sons Jules, 4, and Jonas, 3, pinballing around noisily in the background.
“Doing one tiny little thing takes half a day (now), when I used to have people doing it for me. You realize how busy life can be.”
Hardly a mystery to any parent without enough hours on their clock. A bit of a revelation for a single father whose interests are still taking him around the globe, and whose concerns on this day included arranging a visa for a trip this month to Brazil, where he’d race a stock car – after he’d recently negotiated a deal, while racing in Wisconsin, to compete in Spain.
Villeneuve is between full-time rides, steady employment as elusive in NASCAR as it is in the cockpit of any race car. This weekend, he’ll be back on Circuit Gilles Villeneuve for his fourth go at the NAPA Auto Parts 200, having finished 16th in 2008, fourth in 2009 and third last year.
The 40-year-old will be behind the wheel of Brad Keselowski’s No. 22 Discount Tire/Ruby Tuesday Dodge Challenger, out of the Penske Racing stable – the car Kurt Busch drove to a win at Watkin’s Glen last weekend.
It surely will be the best road-course car Villeneuve has steered in a six-race Nationwide Series career; he debuted here in 2008’s torrential rains, his car not equipped with a windshield wiper, and wound up rear-ending Alex Garcia during a full-course caution to finish up the track, the final car on the lead lap.
The Penske team called Villeneuve a couple of months ago and signed him to a two-race deal: the June 25 event at Road America at Elkhart Lake, Wis., and this weekend’s NAPA 200.
“That’s about how it works in racing in general,” Villeneuve said of the offer from the Penske team.
“Sometimes, you’ll get a call because they think you’ll be spending money to race and they need cash, and sometimes they think you can bring something positive to the program. Dodge USA was behind this, which was also very important.”
Not to be underestimated is the appreciation that Villeneuve and Keselowski have for each other, and the fact it seemed almost inevitable that he’d one day work for the Penske outfit against which he memorably raced IndyCar in 1994-95.
“There’s always been a tremendous respect (of Penske),” said Villeneuve, who piloted Keselowski’s Dodge to an eventful third-place finish at Road America in June.
“And Brad has been very positive toward me, so I think that helped internally at Penske.”
Villeneuve happily recalls his two Montreal races against Keselowski, who has turned over his wheels to Villeneuve this weekend while he himself competes in Sprint Cup in Michigan.
“Two years ago, we spent half the race banging wheels,” Villeneuve said. “It was aggressive but it was clean. We ran into each other a few times but never on purpose. At some point, the cars are bigger and the track is narrower than you want them to be, so we kept leaning on each other. It was good fun – muscle and tough, and a great battle.
“Then Brad and I got out of our cars and laughed at each other. It was great, and we didn’t forget that.
“That’s been very positive for me driving his car. He’s the kind of guy who respects what other people can do. He’s an amazing driver who still has a bit to learn on the road course, and I think he thought my driving his car would be great for their program as well.”
At last month’s Nationwide event in Lebanon, Tenn., Keselowski considered what shape the “intelligently aggressive” racer (as Villeneuve called himself before his 1993 Montreal debut) might return his car. “Hopefully, it comes back in one piece with Gatorade on it,” he replied with a grin, hinting at a trip to Victory Lane.
Keselowski said that, from the beginning of the season, putting a road-course specialist in his car here was a serious option.
“We hadn’t really made the decision until we got the right driver that made sense for the sponsors and the team,” he said. “Obviously, Jacques is a very aggressive, talented racer. I’d love to see him win in my car. And what he means to the town of Montreal, I think it’s just good for everybody on our team.”
Villeneuve has always been a great story in this city, his first race on the circuit named for his late father producing a 1993 Formula Atlantic victory following impressive Formula 3 showings in Italy and Japan.
The ’93 Atlantic win, on the undercard of the Formula One Canadian Grand Prix, was his springboard into IndyCar racing. There he’d win the circuit’s rookie-of-the-year title in 1994, the historic Indianapolis 500 and series championship in 1995, then graduate to a decade in F1, which saw him win the world title with Williams in 1997, his sophomore year.
When Villeneuve’s F1 opportunities evaporated for a variety of reasons during the 2006 season, he settled in Montreal and turned his eye to NASCAR and other forms of racing that have taken him far and wide.
But stock cars have special appeal, and he’s been knocking on doors hoping that his racing pedigree, history and solid performance in a car with a roof won’t go unnoticed.
Last month, he travelled unannounced to a NASCAR race weekend in Loudon, N.H., to put a few irons in the fire.
“I’ve been working on this a few years now. It just takes a while to get going,” Villeneuve said. “Every time I get in the car, the racing and the results are better.
“Every time there’s a good show, the team and sponsor get good mileage and good information. It’s building up. When you (have success) one time, it could be a one-off. But now it’s been like that every race, so they’re starting to realize there’s value in it.”
Villeneuve arrives this weekend for his 15th career race on the Île Notre Dame circuit. He’s not won here since Atlantic in 1993, finishing an F1-best second for Williams in 1996 and a NASCAR-best third last summer for Todd Braun.
Of his three stock-car starts here, Villeneuve most cherishes 2008, NASCAR’s first point-scoring race run on rain tires that aquaplaned through an afternoon-long downpour.
It caught many teams without defoggers and windshield wipers, his included, drivers turning left and right by instinct and with fingers crossed.
“It was raining so hard it was crazy. It was amazing,” marvelled Villeneuve, who has run through Biblical monsoons in every type of open-wheel car.
“To see all the NASCAR guys who weren’t really road racers, and also had never driven in the wet – there was no practice in the rain and the first lap they did in the wet was the race start. But everything went fine. They all managed to drive, there weren’t that many crashes, it was an amazing race. They all stepped up. I was very impressed with all that.
“In other (racing), where people are used to running in the wet, if something like that had happened, there would have been whining about how much water there was and they all would have been going off (the track). In NASCAR, nobody whined. They were just all excited.
“They found it fun and they drove well. That really got to me.”
Villeneuve said the only time he’s raced in that amount of water was in the late 1980s and early ’90s in Formula 3 in Italy and Japan, “where you drove whatever the situation was just to survive, even if you couldn’t see an inch in front of you.
“That’s how it was in Montreal. Before here, (NASCAR) didn’t drive in the rain. Where the whole racing world is saying: ‘We can’t do that, it’s too crazy,’ NASCAR is going crazier and actually allowing it.
“It created an amazing race. I really enjoyed it.”
At no point, Villeneuve said, has he believed this racetrack owes him a victory, no matter its name or his misfortune created by himself, by others or by mechanical failure.
“I’ve never thought about it like that, ever, in all my racing career,” he said. “The good thing is, I’ve won once in Montreal, but after that it’s gone bad.”
He laughs as he speaks those words, having run between ninth and 22nd in F1 following his runner-up finish and 16th in his first Nationwide swim meet before two top-fives. But he does love every experience, of that there’s no doubt.
“I’ve always enjoyed racing on this track,” Villeneuve said, never referring to it by name. “Qualifying is not so exciting (in NASCAR) because the cornering speed is quite slow and it’s quite intricate with all the heavy braking and changes of direction. The cars aren’t made for that. But once you get into racing, there’s always something going on, wherever. It’s great for the fans and great for us drivers.”
His Road America set-up in this season’s new Nationwide car – one he’s enjoyed from his first lap in it – was very solid, showing Villeneuve to be very good under braking and in the slow-speed corners. A test session on a road course in Kershaw, N.C., last week was done to tweak a few things, and he’s optimistic that the Penske Dodge “should be good in Montreal as long as we can ride the curbs.
“The cars are heavier than last year, but somehow they drive better. It has good front end grip and moves a little bit less. I really loved it in Elkhart Lake. It was a lot of fun to drive.
“The only thing now, and (it’s something) the teams are used to by now, is that I need good brakes,” he said, laughing again. “From what I saw in Elkhart Lake and last year in Montreal, I’ll brake later than anyone. The key is to have brakes that survive. They did here last year and at Road America. I could brake hard the whole race.”
There are full-time Nationwide drivers in this weekend’s field who steer their cars in their sleep, who in two months will run more NASCAR races than Villeneuve has in his career. And yet none are likely as naturally gifted behind the wheel as Villeneuve, who’s never lost the touch despite long stretches of competitive inactivity.
“The first two laps sometimes are a little bit surprising,” he admitted. “It’s just the visual aspect of the speed, which you kind of lose touch with. You drive on the roads very slowly, then you get in the race. Visually, you’re not used to going 250 km/h and your brain just has to get back into it.
“It takes a lap or two of hitting your brakes and realizing, ‘I can brake 50 metres later than that.’ Five minutes, a couple of laps and you’re back into it. Your body remembers it all.
“And sometimes it’s good to have a little break because you can learn again. That was often the problem I found with Formula One – you were driving every week and you got in that rhythm. Then you got stuck in that rhythm.
“Sometimes you need to take a little time off, maybe two, three months, just a little bit to forget about that rhythm, to start from scratch but keep that body memory. That’s the only way that experience kicks in – when you have time to go away for the brain to assimilate it all.
“When the body memory takes over, you can drive like that. And that’s when you can race your best because you can focus on where to brake, how to overtake. You don’t have to focus on how to drive and react because your subsconscious is doing it for you.”
Villeneuve considered the final event of fellow Quebecer Patrick Carpentier, a respected colleague and 27-year racing veteran who, after this weekend’s NAPA 200, will retire to pursue other interests. And in wondering whether Carpentier might yield to the comeback tug that he’s likely to feel, Villeneuve summarized his own life:
“I don’t understand retirement,” he said. “When you have racing in your blood, it doesn’t go away.
“You don’t suddenly become a non-racer. If you’re really passionate about it, you can’t. It’s in your blood until you die.”