Sunday, May 24, 2015

The 1995 Indy 500: When Villeneuve and Canada Topped the Racing World

 
Photo source: IndyCar


 

Individuals born in 10 countries have claimed the great 500-mile open wheel race. In the 98 previous editions of the Indianapolis 500, the majority of winning drivers were American born (consisting of 72 in total). At least two Indianapolis 500 winners can be linked indirectly to Canada. The 1946 race winner George Robson was born in England but resided in Canada for years before again moving to the United States. Robson became an American citizen in adulthood but some Canadian auto racing historians would still consider his Brickyard victory important for our country. Last year’s Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay also shares a connection with Canada through his mother. However, on the May 28th, 1995 running of the Indianapolis 500, an epic race officially added the nation of Canada’s name to the event’s prestigious history book.

“It was such a big race win. It was the way we won it as a team”, said 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner Jacques Villeneuve. At the time a 24-year-old in his second-year with the CART/IndyCar World Series Championship, Villeneuve’s career soared after finishing first in the 200-lap race.

 

 

Flashback to the 1995 Indianapolis 500




Despite a rain that soaked the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s asphalt the night prior, the adventure of 33 drivers and teams commenced almost on time for that Sunday afternoon. Three Canadians suited-up for the 1995 edition of the 500-mile classic consisting of Paul Tracy, Scott Goodyear and Jacques Villeneuve. In the late stage of the 1995 Indy 500, two of our country’s motorized titans were locked in a battle for the BorgWarner trophy.

Lap 190, the field of the 1995 Indianapolis 500 was slowed by the crash of contender Scott Pruett. Canadian open wheel racing veteran Scott Goodyear rode in the lead of the race under caution behind the purple 1995 Chevrolet Corvette convertible pace car anticipating a final restart. Piloting a Honda-powered Reynard running on Firestone Firehawk racing slicks by Tasman Motorsports, Goodyear possessed a fast race vehicle that had captured a third-place starting position. For Scott Goodyear, a 1995 race win would have served as solace after narrowly missing the 1992 Indy 500 victory. Coming just 0.043 seconds short of passing Al Unser Jr. at the finish line, Goodyear was entitled to think the grand event’s highest honour was his for the taking.

Behind Scott Goodyear running second late in the 1995 Indianapolis, a Player's-sponsored #27 Reynard-Ford was wheeled by a young sophomore driver named Jacques Villeneuve. The son of who is arguably considered Canada’s first auto racing superstar Gilles Villeneuve, Jacques had constructed a promising career in a short time. Placing second in Japanese Formula Three in 1992, a third-place overall placement in the 1993 Toyota Atlantic Championship for Forsythe/Green Racing was enough earn the team’s IndyCar seat the following year. Jacques Villeneuve’s rookie season was topped by a win at Road America (the same place his uncle became the first Canadian driver to win a CART sanctioned race in 1985). His early success in the open wheel racing series also included a runner-up finish at the 1994 Indianapolis 500.

With the outcome of the 1995 Indianapolis 500’s final restart, one Canadian captured the greatest race in the world while another one saw it slip away. As the Corvette pace car led the field through turn four, the anticipation for the green flag proved too great for Goodyear. His #24 car streaked by the pace car as it was entering pit road leaving the Player's car in the dust. Immediately, Scott Goodyear was ruled to have passed the pace car on the start. Assessed a stop-and-go penalty, Goodyear and his Tasman Motorsports team chose not to acknowledge it based on the reasoning they were going to protest the penalty. The car was black-flagged but was discounted from scoring after five laps of avoiding the call from race officials. Failing to overturn the penalty, Scott Goodyear was classified in 14th place in the finishing results for the 1995 race.

 

The View from the Winner

Photo source: IndyCar



Taking the chequered flag for the 1995 Indianapolis 500, the Barry Green-owned race team and driver Jacques Villeneuve overcame adversity to win the big Memorial Day weekend event.

20 years since the historic event in Canadian sports, Car FYI was able to talk with Jacques Villeneuve reflecting on the 1995 Indianapolis 500 win. “It was one of those races where it goes well earlier and then you lost it and then you found a way to get it back“, describing the two-lap deficit his race team overcame. At the time of the penalty, Villeneuve and much of the team was initially prepared to count themselves out of the running for the BorgWarner Trophy that afternoon. However, the fact the team was competing for the full CART/IndyCar World Series schedule in 1995 meant they needed to press forward for championship points. On the radio, there was also a rallying cry given from major figures in the Player's pit stall. “Barry Green, who was the team owner on the radio and Tony Cicale (his teams race engineer) said, Ok guys, we can still do it. Lets put our heads down and work at it.

Leading briefly in the early stage of the race, Villeneuve and the #27 car were penalized in during the race’s second caution between laps 37 and 44. Still on the race track as a pit stop cycle had already brought much of the field to pit lane, Jacques Villeneuve was unaware he was the leader and passed the pace car on two occasions. The fault cost the team two laps. When the green returned to the race track, a repurposed Jacques Villeneuve and Player's Racing team quietly made up positions. By lap 84, the #27 car had climbed to 20th place and rose to 12th place by the 124th lap. “We weren’t really paying attention to our position”, said Villeneuve. “We were just racing hard until we got to the last safety car and realized we were second and I thought, wow, thats amazing, we managed to get up to second. Thats good enough!“ The team behind the #27 Player's Reynard-Ford’s perseverance was rewarded on lap 190. “Ahead of us was Scott Goodyear with the Honda engine and the Bridgestones and they were just so much faster. There only hope for victory was if Goodyear would make a mistake. Of course, fortunes favoured Jacques Villeneuve during the fabled final laps.

The BorgWarner Trophy, over 1.3 million dollars share of the race’s purse and the taste of milk in Indianapolis Motor Speedway‘s victory lane were traditional items that accompanied the Villeneuve‘s win. However, the Canadian driver‘s motivation for winning the Indy 500 also included the promise of a more homey gift. “My manager was saying that I couldnt afford a motor home. So I said listen, if I win the Indy 500, if I win this race today, then Ill get a motorhome. So when I got out of my car, the first thing I told him, OK, where is my motorhome?”


Photo Credit: Unknown



20 years later, Jacques Villeneuve fondly recalls the 1995 race. “It always remains a most special race for me”, said Villeneuve who credits the win for gaining him the attention to run Formula 1 for the first time in the following year. Having run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the Formula 1 tour as well as in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in 2010, Villeneuve returned to the great race in 2014 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. What was special was to get back in an open wheel. “Its been less the 10 years or 9 years since Ive been in an open wheel car. It was the fact of being back in the car at those speeds”, said Villeneuve. Between 1995 and 2014, the driver noted a different racing experience. “The cars now are a lot easier to drive. Basically, they have less horsepower and more grip. Last year, I was flat for the entire race. 20 years ago, I couldnt do it during the race. Only three of the four qualifying laps were flat. You also knew that if you crashed, there wasnt a soft (SAFER) wall. It would be painful.” Jacques Villeneuve also noted, “It was more less Daytona and NASCAR. I prefer the old fashion when the cars were more on the edge and were more difficult to drive. The way the cars are now, an average driver will be able to run fast. You dont have to be any good; Its actually quite simple. It becomes tricky once you get in traffic.”

Jacques Villeneuve has never taken time to absorb the effect his Indianapolis 500 victory had for Canada. Realizing that Canadians typically gravitate to hockey on a national stage, he understood the win in the internationally renowned race was a big deal in 1995. With almost two decades between the 1995 Indy 500 and today, Player's tobacco brand is no longer able to be represented alongside Canadian drivers, Scott Goodyear has long retired the steering wheel in favour of a microphone during IndyCar broadcasts and Jacques Villeneuve’s Indy 500 as well as his later 1997 Formula 1 World Championship appears somewhat buried by years of less successful career outings for the now 44-year-old Canadian. Auto racing in this country faces its challenges against the world’s best. However, the vigor behind that 1995 Indy 500 can always be reignited when a Canadian sits on the starting grid at the famous Brickyard.

 

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