Jacques Villeneuve has been there and done that in the motorsports world, winning the Indy 500 in 1995 and standing on the top of the motorsports world by winning the driver’s championship in Formula 1 in 1997, but there is one thing he is yet to achieve; starting the Daytona 500. On Sunday, Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback and Super Bowl champion Charles Woodson will ask the drivers to start their engines, and Villeneuve will fire up his car.
Villeneuve fast-tracked securing a spot in the big race by being second-fastest among the six cars looking to earn a spot in the race in single-car qualifying on Wednesday night. Ahead of the season, it was announced that Team Hezeberg would be fielding a part-time team in the NASCAR Cup Series and a full-time team in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series, both of which will feature a car driven by Villeneuve and his teammate Loris Hezemans. The 50-year-old didn’t look to have the pace in the early Tuesday’s practice, but on Wednesday, he found a way to ensure he would race on Sunday.
“(After practice), I was convinced we didn’t have the speed to get in on time,” Villeneuve said. “I thought we would have to fight to get in through the Duel (heat race). Somehow today the car was a lot easier to drive. It was easy to be smooth because we got in by not a lot. It was very, very close. It was all a matter of getting right up to speed coming out of turn two, going through the gears, getting away from the wall to not block the air, just getting these extra few revs; that made the difference. This was surprising for everyone because Tuesday it was very notchy.”
“To be able to make such a big race at such a high level is amazing and when I’m in the race car I don’t realize that I’m 50, which is good,” he said. “As long as it carries on like this, I can’t imagine myself stopping racing.
“Obviously, it’s not a win. It’s not like winning the Indy 500 or the F1 championship, but at this point in my career, just to make the show is incredible because it’s a small team,” Villeneuve said. “We didn’t link up with a big team to get the car ready and it’s highly unexpected to be able to make it on time, so it ranks right after those big wins.”
On Thursday night, Team Hezeberg and Villeneuve were looking to get the best starting position possible for the race on Sunday, but the start of the second Duel didn’t go quite as planned. Before the race was to start, Villeneuve’s engine wouldn’t fire, and later in the race, the engine dropped a valve and required a new engine to be put into the car. As such, he will start the race from the back of the grid in 40th position.
“So not a lot of laps for me, and I was wanting to try to the pit lane entry and pit-out a little bit today,” said Villeneuve. “But 500 miles is a long time to learn all of that tomorrow.”
“When I was in F1 I didn’t think I would be able to drive anything else,” he added. “I was so focused and groomed for those kinds of cars, and it’s not until I jumped into a NASCAR that I realized there was a lot of fun to be had driving something different and I’ve had a blast ever since just jumping in different kind of cars.”
Since the Duels, Villeneuve hasn’t been able to set any laps thanks to the engine issues, and it’s going to be difficult for him to make much headway in the current situation. He doesn’t come in with any lack of experience, however. Of course, he brings his experience from open-wheel racing, but he is no stranger to stock cars.
In NASCAR across multiple North American series, Villeneuve has participated in 24 races where he has scored eight top-10 finishes, six top-five finishes, and one pole position. In Europe, he has continued to add to his resume in stock car racing with 17 more race starts, four podiums, and one pole position. One thing he didn’t gain experience with in Europe is oval racing, however, and that is obviously a critical element of the Daytona 500.
“What’s difficult for NASCAR in Europe is the ovals,” said Villeneuve. “It’s not a European thing; it’s very difficult to understand an oval unless you’ve grown up with it or you’ve driven it and I’ve seen that with F1 drivers. I remember having a discussion with Romain Grosjean, who is in IndyCar now. He said, ‘Why would you do that race? It’s so boring. You just go around in circles.’ And I was trying to explain how difficult it was to drive and get in the groove and drive with the traffic. He finally got into IndyCar and went to an oval and said, ‘Oops, yeah, you were right. This is quite special.’ Unless you’ve grown up with it, you just don’t get it.”
As a direct result of Team Hezeberg and Villeneuve qualifying for the Daytona 500, Woodie’s Wash Shack stepped up to become the team’s primary sponsor for the race. The car that fans have seen Villeneuve drive all week long in Florida will have a bit of a different look on Sunday, ditching the largely orange and black scheme for the teal and orange the company uses.
He will need to pull out just about every trick in the book to find a way to win a race from the back of the pack in vastly inferior machinery and without a teammate to help him. It’s unlikely that Villeneuve will get a great result in this race, however, just to be there is something special for the Canadian motorsports legend. He’s getting closer and closer to being able to say that he has raced on every big stage imaginable.