You have to give it to Jacques Villeneuve. At 39, a dozen years after winning the Formula 1 World Championship, the guy’s raw enthusiasm still thrives. When I bumped into him in Montréal at the Canadian Grand Prix, he was full of excitement about his pair of NASCAR Nationwide races at Elkhart Lake last weekend and on Ile Notre Dame at his father’s eponymous track in late August.
Villeneuve won both the CART Indycar races he started in 1994 and ‘95 at the majestic four-mile Road America circuit near Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin and was confident he would do well there in a stock car. Sure enough, Villeneuve qualified second to Nationwide series frontrunner Carl Edwards and was the only man to challenge him in the race.
The Nationwide series, NASCAR’s second-division championship, has run a race in Montréal for the past two years. This was the first time it has raced at Elkhart Lake, however, and Villeneuve hoped his experience there would give him a chance of victory, as well as helping to prepare him for his next NASCAR outing.
Jacques’s confidence proved to be well placed as he came close to matching the pace of Edwards’ superior Roush Ford. Villeneuve was particularly impressive under braking for Turn 5 at the end of Elkhart’s long backstretch, and for Canada Corner further round the circuit where he smoothly out-braked Edwards on one occasion. In the closing laps Jacques put on a spectacular show as his car’s damaged front bodywork rubbed against his left front tyre, peeling off slices of rubber and issuing clouds of smoke under braking.
Still Villeneuve hung on as best he could to Edwards and appeared to have second place wrapped up before his engine began to fail with two laps to go. He was able to keep going, limping home 25th, but showed everyone in NASCAR that he knows a thing or two about road racing.
Villeneuve now has a couple of months to prepare for the Nationwide race at his home track – the only race other than the Canadian GP run at le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Jacques ran in last year’s Nationwide race in Montréal, finishing fourth amid a rainstorm, so he’ll be a big part of the promotion for this year’s race and may be ready to challenge Edwards, who won in Canada last year.
A big crowd turned out for the race then, and with Villeneuve showing well at Elkhart Lake there’s every chance even more fans will buy tickets this year. It’s interesting that, despite its decline in the marketplace in recent years, NASCAR continues to expand northward with the races in Montréal and Road America.
In time, it would be no surprise to see either one or both of these races become first-division Sprint Cup events. If it happens in Montréal, it will be the first Sprint Cup race run outside the United States, and we may well have Jacques Villeneuve’s enthusiastic presence in the field to thank for making it happen.