Jacques Villeneuve’s resume as a professional racecar driver is a checklist of achievements unrivaled among most of his contemporaries: an Indy 500 championship, Formula 1 crown, and IndyCar series title.
For his first month of May since 1995, however, the veteran partook in rookie orientation, a day of practice set aside for newcomers to get acquainted with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I called it the old man’s test,” Villeneuve says.
The French Canadian’s run marked his first time in an open wheel car since 2006. “At first it was a shock to the system,” Villeneuve said. “And physically, after 20 laps, I was dead. [My] body wasn’t used to it anymore.”
“It” is the tense feeling of acclimating yourself to speeds of over 230 miles per hour. “Having your helmet out in the air gives you a bigger feedback on the speed you’re going,” he says. “At first, everything was blurry.”
With nearly three decades of racing experience, Villeneuve’s confidence, and racing goggles, soon returned. “You go home, you come back, and suddenly it’s not fast anymore. It doesn’t cross your mind,” he says. “The muscle memory and the brain [are] there. That never leaves.”
According to CNN, Villeneuve’s 19-year gap between 500 starts breaks the previous record of 17 years held by Cy Marshall and Roland Free (1930, 1947).
His first stint at IMS was potent but fleeting. After two years, he bolted for F1 at 24 years old. There, he claimed a world championship in 1997, attracted the ire of Michael Schumacher, and saw his career peak as open-wheel racing in North America cratered due to the infamous CART-IRL split.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Villeneuve says. “It meant it was going to die. You don’t cut in half something that is great without expecting damage.”
Villeneuve was the last driver to win the 500 under a unified open-wheel series. But he didn’t come by his win through speed alone. The savvy youngster used chicanery, and a bit of luck, to make it to the winner’s circle.
With 11 laps to go, Villeneuve was in second place behind race leader Scott Goodyear. The field was under yellow.
“There was no way I could beat Scott Goodyear,” he says. “He was on the Bridgestone [tires] and the Honda engine, and those two things were just better than us. We couldn’t compete. I thought there was no way we could beat him fair and square. So, on the last lap behind the safety car, I kept accelerating, hitting the breaks, getting next to him, just stressing him out.”
As the field entered the final turn before the green flag, Goodyear accelerated past the pace car before the restart.
“I put so much stress on him, he apparently just went for it. And in that split second I said, ‘Let’s hit the breaks, and if I’m lucky, he will get a black flag like he should, because those are the rules,’” says Villeneuve.
Goodyear was penalized three laps later, giving Villeneuve the win.
“Had I overtaken the pace car, I think everyone behind me would have as well, and the black flag wouldn’t have fallen and Scott would have been okay,” he says. “It was rolling the dice. That’s how you win this race.”
Villeneuve’s prolonged absence from Indianapolis has made him an enigmatic figure to American racing fans, many of whom ponder why he’s only just now making his return.
“That’s the question I get the most,” he says. “And, you know, why not?”
While various opportunities to race in the 500 presented themselves in recent years, Villeneuve was disinterested. He viewed the cars as too dangerous and the competition too diluted. It wasn’t until IndyCar implemented the new Dallara chassis design in 2012, which Villeneuve views as a safer alternative, that he took a renewed interest in the sport.
“I’d been watching the races last year, and it looked super exciting, and I wanted to be a part of it,” he says. “I was watching TV and was angry I wasn’t in there.”
In the nearly two decades since his IndyCar exit, Villeneuve’s career has come full circle.
He was once the boyish heir to a racing legacy built by his father, Formula One driver Gilles Villeneuve. He raced against his heroes—including two-time 500 champ Emerson Fittipaldi—and vanquished them. Now, at 43, he finds himself the inspiration, battling drivers who, as children, were members of the Jacques Villeneuve fan club. Legacy fulfilled. “I used to send that guy $20 a month for his newsletter from Switzerland,” James Hinchcliffe, a fellow Canadian, says. “I was 12. I’m looking forward to running against him.”
Despite his age, Villeneuve maintains the passion and drive, which propelled his career. “I just love it,” he says. “I’m in a racecar, it gets the juices going. I love the fight. I love competing.”
Another reason hits closer to home. “I want my kids to see me race.”
Jacques has outlived his father, who died in an accident at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1982 at the age of 32. The son reflects candidly on their relationship: “He made me fly a helicopter when I was 10-years-old. He just handed me the controls and said, ‘Here, you fly.’ That’s the way I grew up. At five-years-old, I was driving on his lap, and he was doing 160 kilometers [per hour] on the highway.”
While his father dreamed of driving Le Mans with his son, Jacques is convinced his father’s passing played a central part in his racing career. “I wouldn’t have had the success I had if he’d been alive. I wouldn’t have become a man. He was a very imposing figure. He was my hero, obviously, but when he was around, I would always have migraines, and I would go nervous because it was a different day and age: You were proud of your son, but you loved your daughters. As long as he was alive, I was a crybaby, and I don’t think I would have had the freedom to have my career. I’m sure he would have been trying to control it all.”
Villeneuve was only 11 at the time of his father’s death. Six years later, he was driving racecars in Formula 3. His family wasn’t apprehensive for his safety as much as they were for his mental well-being. “There was a lot of media attention on me, and if I couldn’t handle it, that would be very destructive,” he says.
But Villeuenve—his once‒suavely unkempt brown hair overtaken by a swath of gray and a growing bald spot—has flourished and endured. “Everything that happens in your life makes you who you are today,” he says. “Even what is hard, and, especially, what is difficult.”
“I still feel young at heart.”
Photos by Kate Shoup