INDIANAPOLIS – This can’t be him, striding briskly toward the next herd of mics and minicams along pit road, a caution flag with feet in the head-to-toe yellow of his sponsor, Dollar General.
The caution in Jacques Villeneuve’s case would be this: Beware. Nineteen years do not always just fall away like autumn leaves.
And so, no, this can’t be him, this middle-aged man coming down the way. He’s a bit thicker now. The dark hair that used to spill from beneath his cap is the color of iron filings now, and up top it’s as thin as a threadbare carpet.
And then Villeneueve turns his head and smiles. And, yes, it’s still him.
We’re a little disappointed, he says after slotting his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports ride into the outside of Row 9 for the 98th Indianapolis 500. But that’s OK. We think we have a really good race setup. That’s what matters.
Something else that matters: Nineteen years really isn’t all that long ago.
Villeneuve was 24 years old in May 1995 when he won the Indianapolis 500 in the robin’s egg blue-and-white of Forsythe-Green Racing, and then he was off to Formula One, where two years later he won the F1 World Driving Championship. He dabbled in NASCAR for a while – even came back to Indy to run the Brickyard 400 in 2010 – and now, at 43, he’s back again in his more natural element.
And if it’s not exactly as if he never left, that day in ’95 remains stuck in time for some.
Simon Pagenaud, for instance, was 11 years old that May, and still he remembers. He remembers the robin’s egg blue car. He remembers Villeneuve winning. He remembers him going to Formula One, and winning there, and suddenly here he is again all these years later.
I met him yesterday, Pagenaud said this month. It was kind of a funny feeling.
For Villeneuve, too, somewhat. When he was little, he says, two of his first words were Emerson Fittipaldi, and his earliest memory of Indy was ’92, when the chilliest 500 on record resulted in endless restarts as drivers kept spinning off into the walls on cold tires. Two years later, Villeneuve was at Indy himself, racing against Emmo and Mario Andretti and Nigel Mansell, all his idols.
That was always a special moment, he recalls.
And now this different special moment, in a changed landscape. The cars are different here in 2014, of course, and the politics, too; in ’95, open-wheel racing in America was about to fracture and go spinning off in two different directions, destroying its relevance in a way that to some degree echoes to this day.
It was obvious that the split was going to damage it, says Villeneuve, who jumped the pond to avoid all that.
And that’s what happened. That was sad, because at the time it was an amazing series, but right now they’ve been very busy rebuilding it, and it’s going in the right direction. It’s exciting again to be part of the series.
As for the cars, they were well, different.
The ’95 car was edgy, Villeneuve recalls. I wasn’t flat out (in qualifying). There was more horsepower, so you were a little bit more on the ragged edge.
Now it’s more a question of momentum. The speeds are similar, but it drives differently. I love driving at these speeds. That’s what I was born to do.
Now, or then. At 24 in ’95, racing against his idols, or at 43 in ’14, as an idol himself.
It’s nice to be on the other side of the fence now, Villeneuve says.
One way to put it.