Jacques Villeneuve may have only started two Indianapolis 500s, but both races were marked by firsts for Canadians, including this country's sole victory in the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
Calling Villeneuve's 1995 Indianapolis 500 victory unlikely would be an understatement at best. From the untested Goodyear tires he raced with, an early two-lap deficit, and the challenge of beating a car driven by fellow Canadian Scott Goodyear that was markedly faster, the racing gods needed to smile upon him several times during the race to bring him success.
"It was a great race because we weren't supposed to win," said Villeneuve, of Iberville, Que., who now lives in Montreal.
"We were quick and it [the circumstances]made the race fun because normally at Indy you just pace yourself - you just kind of race and wait to the end - but in that race, the whole thing was driving qualifying laps and getting through the traffic, and that made it a lot of fun."
Villeneuve, 40, went two laps down after passing the pace car twice under an early caution after not realizing he was the leader who was supposed to line up behind it. Luckily, as the race unfolded, he also passed the leader twice just before cautions came out, which got him the two laps back and gave him a shot at the win.
From there, fate took over. Ironically, the same penalty that caused Villeneuve's grief ultimately delivered the win when late leader Goodyear was given a penalty for passing the pace car on a restart with 10 laps to go. Running second at the time, a quick-thinking Villeneuve used some psychological warfare during the pace car period as a last-ditch effort to steal the win. It worked.
"They were quicker and there was no way I could overtake him," Villeneuve said. "So, I just put the pressure on him when we were behind the safety car. I kept moving close to him and beside him and it got him riled up."
"When I saw Scott get on the gas early and overtake the pace car, I just couldn't believe it and I thought: 'Wow we have a chance now.' He disappeared like that and I hit the brakes to stay behind the pace car because I thought it would possibly help the decision to get him black flagged. It made it obvious he did something wrong."
While Goodyear crossed the line first after refusing to serve his penalty, officials stopped scoring his car with five to go and Villeneuve was declared 1995 Indy 500 winner.
A year earlier at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 500 rookie Villeneuve ran up against the secretly-developed Mercedes engine that promised to make the race a fait accompli for the Penske squad. That fear played out on the track as Emerson Fittipaldi lapped the entire field with the powerful Penske, and looked headed for an easy win until the Brazilian crashed out of the race and handed the lead to teammate Al Unser Jr.
But while the Penske motor developed to exploit a special set of rules for the Indy 500 gave them a huge advantage of an estimated 200 horsepower over their rivals, they were also thirsty and Fittipaldi's mistake almost tossed the race into Villeneuve's lap.
"We didn't think we had a chance to win it - we just minded our own business for the whole race and we were the quickest of the other cars out there and I was happy to be the first car with a normal engine," he said.
"We were looking good toward the end because with the fuel, we thought they all had to pit and we didn't, so we actually had a small chance at the end. It's hard to know the truth, but from what we understood at the time, they were marginal on fuel and we weren't. The chances were between tiny and slim, but it was unbelievable we were running right with them."
In the end, Villeneuve never got to see whether the fuel issue would play out because another driver crashed with four laps left and Unser took the chequered flag under caution. While he didn't win, Villeneuve became the first Canadian to be Indy 500 Rookie of the Year. It was a positive result for Villeneuve, who worried many coming into the race after a trio of big crashes in his first three starts of the CART season.
With even the smallest transgression having the potential to become agonizing fast, Villeneuve said a good dose of respect for the 2.5-mile oval should be part of every driver's consciousness during Sunday's race at the Brickyard which marks the 100th anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500.
Respect for the legendary Brickyard was something Villeneuve had from the first time he got on the track, but it was amplified during his first attempt at qualifying-type lap on the oval.
"The first lap you do flat out, takes a lot out of you. You spend 10 laps thinking 'OK, the car can do it so I'll just keep my foot down' and somehow it just lifts a little bit," he said.
"It's annoying because the foot lifts on its own - the first lap you do it flat it's almost painful because you have to tell your foot 'OK don't lift' and you concentrate on that instead of driving and it's not natural. It's really strange, and once you've done it, then it's easy."
Villeneuve went on to win the CART title in 1995, and the Formula One world championship two years later with the Williams team, becoming only the third driver to win those two championships and an Indy 500. He's in good company, since the others are Mario Andretti and Fittipaldi.
Although he's the only Canadian to find success in the Indy 500, Villeneuve admits he didn't dream about racing at the Brickyard when he was young or even after his racing career got going.
"I was lucky that I didn't grow up with the Indy 500 - I was in Europe - so I didn't have the kind of pressure other drivers feel. It was only once I got to North America that I realized the importance of the Indy 500," he said.
"I would say it was more Monaco for me, because we lived there. But as a single event, the Indy 500 has always been the main race on the planet."
The Team Penske NASCAR Nationwide outfit announced Tuesday that Villeneuve will drive the No. 22 Dodge usually piloted by reigning champion Brad Keselowski at Road America on June 25 and at home in Montreal on Aug. 20.
Missed opportunity for Toronto Indy organizers
The Toronto Indy promoter has slammed the door on a move to rename the media centre at the race after late automotive journalist Dennis Morgan.
A group of more than 30 journalists, drivers, and team personnel got together late last year in support of the "Dennis Morgan Media Centre," an idea that was proposed to the Indy promoter Green Savoree Toronto, earlier this year. Regrettably, the positive story for the race and its promoters turned negative when it put the brakes on the idea last week with little explanation.
The race's public relations agency explained the decision in a statement.
"[Green Savoree Toronto vice-president]Charlie [Johnstone]had a lot of esteem for Dennis, and agrees that he was a remarkable person, visionary and mentor. At this time, the re-naming or christening of media centres after individuals is not in the plans for the organization."
Morgan, who passed away in 2007, was a long time Toronto Star reporter and Wheels Section editor. Not only was Morgan well liked in the paddock and media centre at races, he was a consummate professional and played a pivotal role in increasing the coverage of motorsports in Canada.
After joining the Star in 1976, Morgan was the driving force behind the Toronto Star's Wheels section, which made its debut in 1986. Two years later, he hired Canada's first dedicated motorsport writer at a major newspaper.
While an exceptional writer and editor, it was Morgan's genuine thoughtfulness and sense of humour that earned him friends in and brought smiles to every media room he visited. Ask any racing driver in this country who drove in the past 30 years or so, and they will credit Morgan for raising the profile of Canadian racing and being instrumental in helping up-and-coming drivers get noticed by giving them exposure as they climbed the ladder.
Unfortunately, this was not enough for the Toronto promoters, who could have used this magnanimous gesture to show they are part of the community rather than outsiders from Indianapolis coming to the city simply to make a buck.