Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. If anybody doubted that Jacques Villeneuve still had his trademark blend of skill and bravado behind the wheel, he proved them wrong at Road America on Saturday.
Racing in the NASCAR Nationwide series’ debut at the scenic, fast and technically challenging four-mile (6.4-kilometer) road course in central Wisconsin, Villeneuve made a couple of oh-my moves to get his car to the front. He was leading late, stayed on the track even though it looked like his tire was about to shred, and still might have finished second if not for an electrical problem.
Not bad for a 39-year-old driver who hasn’t had a regular drive in a top-level racing series since 2006.
“It’s an honor for us to get to race against a guy like that, it truly is,” race winner Carl Edwards said. “He’s a world champion, and I think it says a lot about him. I don’t know when the last time he was in a race car was, but to come jump in this race car and come to a track like this and drive a stock car with us, that’s cool. A lot of fans here came because of him, and it’s cool that he does that.”
Villeneuve, the 1997 Formula 1 champion and 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner, has struggled to find a place to race since leaving F1 in 2006. He tried NASCAR a couple of years ago, but he and the team couldn’t find enough sponsorship money to make it work.
Then he thought he had an F1 ride lined up for this year, but the sport’s governing body didn’t approve the new team he wanted to race for.
“Both F1 and NASCAR are exciting,” Villeneuve said. “They’re the two top levels of racing in the world right now. If a good F1 opportunity came about, it would be difficult to say no. But I think where I’m at now, I probably would enjoy NASCAR more. That makes it a bit difficult.”
For now, Villeneuve’s racing wherever and whenever he can. He plans to return to the Nationwide series for its race in Montreal, his hometown, in August.
Beyond that, he’s chasing around his two young children, and racing go-karts and skiing — yes, skiing — in order to keep his reflexes sharp.
“It would be better to be in a car every week, obviously,” Villeneuve said. “It just takes a few laps to get the rust out and you’re fine.”
The rest of the time, he’s trying to put together a business deal that would get him back to the top levels of the sport — a difficult proposition in a lagging economy.
“It’s mainly linked to sponsorship,” Villeneuve said. “The way the economy is now, the teams don’t really want to take the risk. They want the money first. It’s different than 10 years ago, when there was sponsorship in abundance. I think actually [teams] had to get rid of sponsors when they did not all jell together. It is a little bit different.”
Edwards said that’s just the way things are going right now in NASCAR.
“The thing is right now in the sport, there’s so many guys trying to fill so few seats that it just comes down to finding the right partner and finding the right team that it all works with. But I can tell you one thing: That guy can drive a race car. He definitely deserves the opportunity if he can get it.”
Villeneuve thought he might have found that opportunity with the fledgling Stefan GP team earlier this year, but it fell through at the last moment.
“It was very close,” Villeneuve said. “The car was ready, the seat was made. But it was one week before the start of the season, it was not enough time for the FIA [governing body] to do proper due diligence on the team, figure out if they were for real or not, if all the budgets were in place.”
Villeneuve said he thinks the FIA didn’t want to take a chance on a less-established team after a much-hyped deal to bring a US-based team to F1 fell apart.
“I think they didn’t want to take the chance of another bad publicity,” Villeneuve said.
For now, Villeneuve doesn’t want to dwell on deals that didn’t come together.
“It doesn’t matter how close it gets,” he said. “It didn’t happen.”
So given the sport’s current economic problems and the difficulty he has had trying to find a ride, exactly why is he so keen to keep racing?
“I love it,” Villeneuve said. “I love racing, I love competition in general and it’s something I do well. When you do something well, you have good results and it keeps you happy. That’s a good trend.”