Photo: IndyCar

Villeneuve’s Indy 500 return trumpets the past, not the future IndyCar needs

13 Comments

For four years, Jacques Villeneuve was one of the world’s best open-wheel drivers.

From 1994 through 1997, the talented and sometimes tempestuous Canadian dazzled on both a North American and international stage.

He was a star in CART for two years, and in 1995 was the young upstart threatening the iconic names of Andretti, Unser, Fittipaldi and Rahal.

A year later he was off to Frank Williams’ Formula One team, in 1996. He almost won his first Grand Prix in Melbourne, and he took the title chase down to the last race in Suzuka. He won the championship a year later after surviving a lunge from Michael Schumacher at Dry Sac corner in Jerez, Spain.

From there, Villeneuve’s F1 career was never able to reach the same heights. He worked with Craig Pollock, and was his first driver in the new British American Racing team. But results between 1998 and 2006 with Williams, BAR-Honda, Renault, Sauber-Petronas and BMW Sauber were few and far between.

Eventually he made a few NASCAR starts, where he occasionally upset the establishment. He made a record, to show off his musical stylings.

He’s talked. He’s talked some more. And he’s talked again, most recently expressing doubts about F1’s newest era.

He’s returning to a full-time rally seat in the new FIA World Rallycross Championship, which has 12 rounds from May to November. But one of the rounds is May 24-25 at Lydden Hill in England, which happens to fall on the same weekend as the Indianapolis 500.

Assuming he takes the green flag at the ‘500 in Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ third car, he’ll set a new record for the longest gap between starts, with 19 years in-between that 505-mile race win and May 25, 2014.

Villeneuve is 42 now – 43 at the time of the ‘500 – and he’ll join a field that will include former ‘500 winners Buddy Lazier, 46, Tony Kanaan, 39, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya, both 38. Scott Dixon, 33, is the youngest former ‘500 winner in the field.

All of the above preamble can lead to one of two overriding opinions:

  • It’s great for the sport, and great for Villeneuve, that he’s choosing to come back to the ‘500 after such a long absence. He’s a marquee name, former winner, and still attracts both discussion and sponsors.
  • It’s a joke, a PR stunt, reeks of desperation and denies a spot for a young talent to have a shot.

While social media tends to skew toward either extreme, Villeneuve’s presence really lies in the middle, albeit skewing slightly more to the latter than the former to me.

The good, first: Villeneuve is a big name, no question. The prestige associated with his past accolades is still something commercial partners can hang their hat on.

He seems to think IndyCar, as an organization, has made strides from where it was when he last left (albeit, it’s been through CART, Champ Car and the Indy Racing League monikers and separate series since 2008’s unification). And he wants in.

“It looked extremely exciting with the new cars, to the point where I was angry and jealous that I wasn’t racing. So that got me going again,” he said during today’s teleconference.

He has “villainous” tendencies, because of his handful of NASCAR starts occasionally featured controversial endings. He sometimes used his Team Penske Dodge as a battering ram at the Montreal circuit named after his father, Gilles.

But there are the questions as to either: A: Does he know what he’s getting himself into and B: What is really in this for Jacques?

He’s set himself up for a challenge. He hasn’t driven an open-wheel car since 2006, but he should be able to reacclimate quickly. At least he hopes he will.

“The power levels are the things you get used to the fastest,” he explained. “Possibly downforce and also driving a car that once again will be quite stiff compared to the cars I’ve been driving lately and very reactive. You can’t manhandle as much. When you get sideways at Indy, the chances of you catching it are quite slim compared to most other cars. You can catch it, but it’s not something you want to push.”

As far as expectations go, the word used today multiple times was “opportunity,” that stemmed from the discussions that have taken place quickly over the past few weeks.

But opportunity to do what? Just to start? To throw himself in the middle of the field and hope he can beat the full-timers to be a serious top-five or top-10 contender?

And then here’s a part I found interesting: the mention of kids. Ironically, Villeneuve’s hoping his appearance in this year’s 500 will be proof he’s still got it to his kids, while he’ll be in a seat that some in the IndyCar world hoped would have gone to – you guessed it – a kid.

“I don’t want to be for my kids just the guy that used to race that they can see in books,” he said. “I want them to see and live what I’ve already lived, to see it through my doing it actively. It’s actually a positive effect to have kids.”

Yet it’s IndyCar’s kids – a Sage Karam, Gabby Chaves, Peter Dempsey, Conor Daly, Stefan Wilson or whoever else – who now have to work even harder to find the funding opportunities to achieve the same opportunity as a guy who starred as a kid in the 1990s.

Go figure.

Without a commercial partner announcement to go with today’s official confirmation, and yes, Schmidt Peterson co-owner Sam Schmidt is confident one will be announced in “not too long of an order,” it all doesn’t particularly add up yet.

You can trumpet the past winner argument all you want, and you can say it puts another car on the grid, and you can say it’s going to be cool to see how someone who raced in another era of open-wheel racing takes to the modern incarnation. All fair points, and yes, they will be interesting to watch.

But when you’re embracing your history books rather than the young students who are reading them, you miss the chance to write some new, fresh chapters with new, fresh characters.

PWC: Andrew Palmer, Jorge de la Torre remain hospitalized in Hartford

WC
Leave a comment

Pirelli World Challenge released an updated statement late Tuesday night on the status of injured drivers Andrew Palmer and Jorge de la Torre, who were both injured in a severe accident in practice on Saturday morning ahead of that series’ race at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, Conn.

No conditions were revealed in the statement.

The statement reads:

“As a follow up to the releases regarding the GT warm-up accident in Saturday’s Pirelli World Challenge race at Lime Rock Park, the Series wants to thank our teams, drivers and fans for the tremendous outpouring of support for Andrew Palmer and Jorge De La Torre.

“Both drivers continue to receive treatment for their injuries at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Conn.  Hartford Hospital has not released further information at this time. The Series will forward any detailed update on the drivers when received from a Hartford Hospital spokesperson. We thank everyone for respecting the families right to privacy as they concentrate on Andrew and Jorge’s hospitalization.”

Bryan Clauson pulls off ‘Hoosier Double’ — Indy 500 and sprint car win in same day

Bryan Clauson prior to the start of Sunday's Indianapolis 500. He'd then go on to race again that evening in a sprint car race at Kokomo (Ind.) Speedway -- and won!
(Getty Images)
Leave a comment

When Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 was over, most drivers went out to dinner, attended Conor Daly’s post-race party – or just plain chilled out and relaxed.

But not Bryan Clauson.

Clauson put together his own version of “the double” Sunday, starting his day at Indy and finishing it not 600 miles away for NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 – but rather with an evening sprint car race about 60 miles away in Kokomo, Indiana.

 

It was indeed a heck of a day and evening for Clauson.

First, he led the 500 for the first time in three career starts there, having the 32 other drivers in the field chasing him for three laps.

Next, Clauson finally finished his first 500 in the No. 88 Cancer Treatment Centers of America Honda for Dale Coyne/Jonathan Byrd’s Racing, amassing 198 laps in the 200-lap event. That was a significant improvement than his first two starts in 2012 (completed just 46 laps) and 2015 (completed 61 laps).

Running 500 miles at Indy didn’t leave Clauson too worse for the wear: he went out and won just a few hours later that evening at Kokomo!

As he was leaving IMS, Clauson, a native of Noblesville, Indiana – about halfway between Indy and Kokomo – stopped quick enough to tweet out his reaction to his finish at Indy.

And then with that, the 26-year-old Clauson was back on the road up to Kokomo Speedway.

Racing at Indy and Kokomo was just a warm-up act for Clauson, who is kicking off a stint of 40 races in 34 days, as part of Clauson and Byrd Racing’s “Chasing 200” tour.

Of course he and fiancee Lauren also had a banquet to attend on Monday night.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Indy 500 champ Alexander Rossi visits NASCAR AMERICA (VIDEO)

Leave a comment

As part of his New York City media tour on Tuesday, Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi visited NBCSN’s NASCAR AMERICA show.

Rossi spoke with Carolyn Manno, and discusses winning the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, his choice of milk after winning and his Formula 1 past before shifting to IndyCar and driving the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda for Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian.

Rossi’s NAPA Auto Parts primary sponsorship will continue into next weekend’s Chevrolet Dual in Detroit Presented by Quicken Loans, Rounds 7 and 8 of the Verizon IndyCar Series season.

The IndyCar circuit returns to NBCSN on June 11, at 8 p.m. ET, from Texas Motor Speedway.

Despite rough finish, Conor Daly finds humor in 2016 Indianapolis 500 experience

16C_8063-1
(Photo: Chris Owens)
Leave a comment

Conor Daly may have been disappointed in his 29th place finish in Sunday’s 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500.

But you couldn’t tell by the 24-year-old Noblesville, Indiana native’s comments at Monday’s Indy 500 Victory Banquet.

Daly started his acceptance speech to receive the $336,243 he earned for being in the 500 by discussing his wardrobe – or lack thereof.

“This is my first purchased suit,” he said with a smirk. “I bought this with my own money. It’s a big achievement in my life.”

That comment drew applause and laughs.

Daly touched on the crash with Mikhail Aleshin shortly after the mid-point of the race that ended the day for both drivers, not blaming the Russian driver, then went into a routine that featured several funny one-liners, including:

* “I’d like to thank Christopher Columbus for coming over and discovering this great place.”

* “And I’d like to thank George Washington for establishing this wonderful country. And all of our veterans and just the great American country, because it’s awesome.”

Daly then talked about how he decided to mosey out to Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s legendary “Snake Pit” in the Turn 3 and Turn 4 portion of the infield.

Just before the race, too!

“I had never been to the snake pit before so I went out there before the race, oddly enough,” Daly said. “I carved out a 30-minute window to do some promotional activities and I wore my helmet and my race suit, safety first. That was awesome. I probably won’t be able to see it ever hopefully for a long time because I’ll be driving (in the race).”

And as for his close friend Rossi, Daly said, “Mr. Rossi, good job, my friend. You get a car and money and all kinds of cool stuff. Yeah, it’s awesome, so good job, buddy.”

When asked about his close friendship with Rossi when they raced against each other in the GP2 series, Daly noted: “We shared many a meal in the GP2 hospitality of dried meats and cucumbers and whatever the heck they had there that I thought were ridiculous.

“We talked many a times about where we were going to go in our careers. Sure enough, here we are, he’s an Indy 500 champion and I’m attempting to do something with my life. So, we’re getting there.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski