DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Jacques Villeneuve was 13 when he told his mother he wanted to be a race car driver.
Hesitant to let her son enter into a career that had claimed the life of his father just one year earlier, she cited poor grades as a reason to hold the youngster back.
So Villeneuve promptly improved his marks. It was one of the earliest indications of how determined he was to race cars, and he used that resolve to build a highly successful open wheel career.
He’ll need that perseverance more than ever this year as Villeneuve embarks on the riskiest venture of his racing career. The former Formula One world champion has moved to NASCAR, where he’s signed on with a fledgling team that’s very short on sponsorship.
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In many regards, this could be it for the French Canadian. If this venture fails – and it soon might if he doesn’t find a sponsor for his Bill Davis Racing team – there’s nowhere else for the 36-year-old driver to go.
If he’s worried, Villeneuve isn’t letting on.
“It can’t fall apart. I won’t let it,” he said Thursday at media day for the Daytona 500. “Of course you are not in 100 percent control of what happens all the time, so if it does fall apart, I will just persevere.”
It begins this weekend for Villeneuve, who will attempt to qualify his unsponsored car for the Daytona 500. If he’s not among the fastest two in Sunday’s time trials, he’ll have to race his way into the field next week.
He’s confident about his chances, even though he has a shell of a team working on his Toyota Camry. The financial limitations have him lagging behind the super teams, and even though his years of open-wheel success made him a very rich man, he’s not prepared to finance this venture himself because he spent so much to get the operation off the ground late last year, and money is a little tight.
But Villeneuve claims he has a sponsor on the edge of commitment, a company just needing one final push to sign on the dotted line. This weekend could seal it, ensuring him a fully funded car for the entire 36-race schedule.
Still, it’s frustrating for Villeneuve to even be in this position.
“This is where we should have been two months ago,” he said. “It means we don’t have all the guys we need. A lot of things were on the back burner because things slowed down and then got going again. A bunch of stuff that should have been done earlier, we’ll now be doing between races.
“It’s not ideal, but we don’t have a choice and you just get on with it.”
It’s the only way Villeneuve knows. Hardened by the cutthroat nature of European racing and a miserable conclusion to his long F1 career, the driver is quite accustomed to the ugly side of racing.
He understands how critical the media can be, knows firsthand how teammates can’t wait to destroy you, and he knows that if the money isn’t flowing, rides go away rather quickly.
The son of F1 great Gilles Villeneuve, who was killed in an accident during qualifying in Belgium in 1982, he’s always understood pressure and expectations. He never had the luxury of easing into a series – with his last name, he was expected to win immediately.
And he did. A year after claiming the Indianapolis 500 title and CART championship, he moved to F1 and promptly challenged for the world title. He won it in 1997, when he wrested the championship away from Michael Schumacher to join Emerson Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti as just the third driver to win the Indy 500, the Indy series title and an F1 championship.
It made him a national hero in Canada and an international superstar. But the success on the track didn’t last, and he made the ill-fated decision to form his own race team with manager Craig Pollock.
British American Racing began Villeneuve’s downfall, as the team never challenged for wins and the driver earned a reputation for being difficult. He never recovered from it, and spent time out of the series before one final return with another underachieving team.
He parted ways with BMW-Sauber midway through 2006 and spent most of last year at home in Montreal with his new wife and growing family. Villeneuve’s second son was born in late December, giving him two boys under 14 months old.
He loves changing diapers and being a dad, but felt the urge to get back into a race car. It’s what led him into NASCAR, where he’s one of four former open-wheelers following Juan Pablo Montoya’s highly watched move to stock cars.
Montoya, who won a Cup race, a Nationwide race and rookie of the year last season, thinks Villeneuve can be good in NASCAR.
“He’s so talented,” Montoya said. “And when he was in good cars, he was among the best in the world. But then when his cars weren’t good, he didn’t win anymore and people forget just how good he was.”
To show that in NASCAR, he’ll need to ensure he makes it an entire season. And he’s doing it without Pollock, who had guided all but two years of Villeneuve’s professional career.
The driver and manager parted ways late last month, with rumblings that Pollock was ousted when he failed to deliver sponsorship to sustain the NASCAR season. But Villeneuve insists it’s because Pollock decided he wants to live with his new wife in Europe, and the distance made their working relationship impossible.
Having to deal with all the details has stressed Villeneuve a bit, so he last week called Barry Green, who fielded his cars for him in CART, and asked him to handle his business affairs.
“The only thing I want to be doing is drive the race car,” he said. “When you try to do more than one job at a time, you won’t do it as good as you should because your mind is not as rested the way it should be. It’s not a positive thing. If I am driving, then I just want to concentrate on that.”
With a big weekend ahead of him – one that could decide this final leg of his career – Villeneuve needs to be stress-free. He doesn’t mind the predicament he’s in, and has no problem fighting hard to make it work.
“I don’t have an ego problem,” he said. “I have always been a person to not sit on the past, to go forward, and this is a new challenge from ground zero. It is challenging, it can be frustrating, but once it all works out the way I think it will, it will be rewarding.”