INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The orange and brown glasses slide down the bridge of Jacques Villeneuve’s nose. Along with the graying hair and growing bald spot, they give the Canadian driver a professorial vibe.
It’s only reinforced when he begins to speak.
In clear, crisp sentences spiced by that unmistakable French-Canadian accent, Villeneuve lays out his opinion on just about anything — especially when it comes to the Indy 500. He will talk about the latest generation of cars, lament the fact there is only one chassis manufacturer, and argue that spotters who are supposed to make the race safer have often had the opposite effect.
Then he’ll talk about the speed and the danger.
“Some younger drivers didn’t grow up seeing racing as being dangerous,” said Villeneuve, who is back at the Indianapolis 500 after a 19-year absence. “They break their little finger and they are surprised. It’s like, ‘Be happy it’s only that.'”
Of course, Villeneuve forgets many of those younger drivers grew up watching him.
James Hinchcliffe, a fellow Canadian, said his earliest memory of watching a race was 1995, when Villeneuve took advantage of a late penalty on Scott Goodyear to win the Indy 500. That was also the last time Villeneuve stepped into an Indy car at the iconic racetrack.
At least, it was until this year.
“It’s cool to have him back,” Hinchcliffe said, “because he’s obviously one of the guys I looked up to as a young driver, and one of the guys I never thought I’d have a chance to race.”
Villeneuve spent nearly two decades driving just about everything but an IndyCar. He won a Formula One title, tried his hand at NASCAR and drove at Le Mans. He dabbled in RallyCross and even raced V8 Supercars around the street circuits of Australia.
But the lure of Indy started to tug him back.
Villeneuve, who will start 27th on Sunday, watched with rapt attention last year as Tony Kanaan took the checkered flag. He was intrigued by the record number of lead changes, the way cars moved through the field and how stiff the competition had become.
Villeneuve managed to land a ride with team owners Sam Schmidt and Rick Peterson, and will be part of a stable that includes Mikhail Aleshin and Simon Pagenaud on Sunday.
“If I jumped from F-1 to this again, it wouldn’t be an issue,” Villeneuve said of the return to open-wheel racing, “but the first 20 laps, your eyes, your brain — it’s not used to those speeds, so it is a big shock. You have to get out, breath again, and then get back in and it’s like, ‘All right. Business as usual.'”
His team may be an underfunded underdog, at least compared to heavyweights Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Autosport, and he may have struggled Friday in the final practice on Carb Day. But none of that will convince Villeneuve that he doesn’t have a chance to win.
“When I won here we were two laps down and we spent the whole race minding our own business,” he said. “That’s the key: You should mind your own business. Figure out what is happening with everyone else at the end. You need a little bit of luck, and then you need to see how it pans out. I just hope I’m not one of those people who does something stupid.”
Pagenaud was surprised to see his new teammate prepare for the race the moment he arrived in Indianapolis. Qualifying was almost an afterthought as Villeneuve gazed ahead to Sunday.
“It actually makes me wonder why he focused so much on the race,” Pagenaud said with a wry grin. “I’m sure he’ll come up with something in the race and I’ll learn then.”
If he does come up with something, Villeneuve could make history. The 43-year-old would break Al Unser’s record of 17 years between victories that has stood since 1987.
Even if he doesn’t win, though, a good showing could prove invaluable. Villeneuve has dropped hints that he may be try to run the IndyCar series full-time next year, and that would turn the Indy 500 into quite an audition.
“I had an opportunity to spend half an hour with Jacques in the garage area a week ago,” said Goodyear, now an analyst for ABC. “Through all the questions I was asking him, catching up with him, I asked him, ‘Why come back to something that you’ve won, have great memories with?
“He said, ‘Racing is my oxygen. I need to race something.'”
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