In the weeks leading up to Sunday's Indianapolis 500, Jacques Villeneuve had politely feigned reverence for U.S. auto racing's most hallowed event. His act had worked only on the gullible, though, for in his fire-and-ice blue eyes there was too much merriment, too constant a hint of a wink. There was no awe there. And if his eyes didn't give him away, a slip of his tongue did. "There is always a lot of pressure at Indianapolis," he said, "from what I understand."
He is a Villeneuve, not an Unser or an Andretti. As thoroughbred as his motor racing bloodline might be -- he is the son of the late Formula One star Gilles Villeneuve -- he came to Indy unburdened by the immensity of the race's tradition. Born in Quebec, raised in Monaco, educated in Switzerland, Jacques Villeneuve wasn't even sure what the Indy 500 was until 1992, when he watched the race on TV in Japan. "When you walk out in front of half a million people, it feels a little different," he said before the race. "But once you get into the car and put your helmet on, it's the same as any other race."
He won the 79th running of the 500 on Sunday because he was so free to do so. At 24 he was too cool to fret while all around him awe-shackled rivals buckled, one-by-one, under as wild a final 100 miles as the event has known.
The last of the reverent front-runners to falter was Scott Goodyear, who appeared to have a lock on the race with only 10 laps to go. For 475 miles Goodyear, a native of Ontario, had played it as coolly as his Quebecois rival. But Indy got to Goodyear a split-second before the final caution period ended with 190 laps completed around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval. Leading the race but overanxious with victory within his grasp, Goodyear jumped the restart, illegally passing the pace car before it had pulled into the pits. He was black-flagged, a warning to pull into the pits for a stop-and-go penalty, but he ignored it. After Lap 196, United States Auto Club officials stopped scoring Goodyear. He wound up 14th.
Goodyear protested that the track lights had gone green just before the pace car pulled out of the way and that he had obeyed them as the authoritative signal. "When the light is green, what you're supposed to do is go," he said.
But Villeneuve was aware that Goodyear was done-for even before Goodyear was. "I knew it before he got the black flag," said Villeneuve, "because I saw him overtake the pace car. Entering Turn 3 he opened up the throttle. He got by the pace car in Turn 4, and the green came on when we were coming out of 4. A regulation is a regulation. The pace car is supposed to be in the pits, whether the light is green or not. It's the driver's responsibility to let the pace car get away."
Villeneuve had learned his own harsh lesson about the pace car earlier in the race when he received the most severe penalty any Indy winner has ever overcome. On the 39th lap he was penalized two laps for failing to fall in behind the pace car quickly enough during a caution period. "When I realized we were being penalized two laps, I swore a little," Villeneuve conceded. But over his radio, the voice of his Australian-born team owner, Barry Green, who pronounces Jacques as Jack, calmly implored, "Just soldier on, Jack. Soldier on, mate."
And no one in the field was better suited to soldier on than Villeneuve. Since May 1982, when his father died from injuries suffered in a crash during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix, Jacques has had little but his surname and his raw talent to help him advance his racing career. In fact the surname has become something of a burden for him in his dealings with the press. "I'm racing because I want to be, not to do what my father would have wanted me to do," he said last week. "I never asked him what he wanted me to do, anyway. I was 11 when he died."
When he began racing in Italy, at age 17, Villeneuve's mother, Joann, who still lives in Monaco, wasn't happy about it. "But she knew I would race anyway," he says, "so she didn't try to stop me."
He came to Indianapolis last year as a rookie and finished second to Al Unser Jr., who, along with Penske Racing teammate Emerson Fittipaldi, the '93 Indy winner, failed to make the field for this year's race. With the last two Indy winners suddenly absent, Villeneuve, who started fifth on Sunday, went in as the favorite of many observers, based on his cool performance last year.
Villeneuve was just ahead of and therefore safe from Sunday's first -- and worst -- crash, which occurred just seconds into the first lap. Stan Fox of Janesville, Wis., a regular midget-car driver who moves up to Indy Cars annually for the 500, had just entered the first turn of the race when his car veered suddenly to the right, making contact with Eddie Cheever's racer and sending both crashing into the wall. Fox's car seemed to disintegrate, and as it flew through the air, his legs could be seen hanging limply where the car's front end had been.
Fox was taken to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis where he underwent surgery for massive head injuries. He was listed in critical but stable condition as SI went to press on Sunday night.
Villeneuve was able to avoid that wreck, but he was not so lucky with the race's second caution, caused by debris on the track on Lap 37. His crew, scrambling to prepare for a sorely needed fuel stop, failed to realize that he had taken the lead and was therefore supposed to fall in behind the pace car. "We should have let you know," Green told him on the radio. "We'll just have to soldier on, Jack."
Soldier on, he did. Mindful that he had to resist the movie-script version of how to make up his two-lap deficit, Villeneuve knew he could not run too hard. "You cannot go crazy here," he had said often last week. If his reverence for Indy was in doubt, his professional respect for the place was not.
"Jack is brilliant at conserving fuel," Green said of the key to the comeback. Running methodically, Villeneuve was able to stay out on the track between pit stops longer than the competition, thereby slowly but surely making up precious distance. By the time the fifth caution period ended, on Lap 127, Villeneuve had gotten back into the lead lap.
He led at the 400-mile mark, but Goodyear had promised earlier in the week that "the real racing won't start until the final 100 miles." The action was wilder than even Goodyear had envisioned, though, more akin to a slam-bang NASCAR shootout at Daytona than to the usual finesse of Indy Cars.
On Lap 170 Scott Pruett passed Jimmy Vasser for the lead, and, in the process, the aerodynamic wash from Pruett's car affected Vasser's. Vasser lost control and crashed. On the restart Goodyear got a superb jump and shot past Pruett for the lead. Then Pruett, struggling to catch up, crashed on Lap 185.
Goodyear was now in command -- and had yet to play his hole card. His Reynard car was powered by a newly developed Honda engine believed to produce 1,000 horsepower, considerably more than the 850 estimated for the Ford Cosworth that propelled Villeneuve's Reynard. "I don't think I could have overtaken Scott," said Villeneuve, frankly but matter-of-factly, "if he hadn't made a mistake."
Goodyear insisted it wasn't a mistake. His team owner, Steve Horne, after reviewing a videotape of the incident, conceded that Goodyear had passed the pace car, but he claimed that "the pace car braked severely... When you look at the tape, Villeneuve nearly ran up the back of the pace car."
Villeneuve did say he "jumped on the brakes" after he saw Goodyear pass the pace car. But he was cool enough to do that, and Goodyear wasn't. The bottom line is: The pace car must not be passed.
"We're going to protest," said Horne, "but I'm sure it will be a typical USAC deal." That is, the results more than likely will stand.
"I applied the penalty that the rules provide," said Speedway chief steward Tom Binford. "So I do not think it will be changed."
Goodyear went away believing that he had in fact won, regardless of the officials' opinion. "I think everyone throughout the world knows who won," he said.
Villeneuve knows from firsthand experience that not everyone throughout the world even knows what Indy is, let alone who won on Sunday, or who claimed to win. Indeed, in the midst of his victory celebration there were rumblings that Villeneuve might not even return next year to defend his title. He is being courted, he admits, by "three of the top four" Formula One teams in Europe, where the Villeneuve name still carries a lot of weight. One of the courting teams is believed to be Ferrari, for whom his father drove.
"We'll try to keep him a little while longer," said Green, "but I have no doubt that one day he'll be in Formula One."
Villeneuve's mother was not at Indy on Sunday. She was at home in Monte Carlo, with F/1 cars screaming outside her windows during the Grand Prix of Monaco. Would Jacques rather that he had been there too? "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else but here today," he said politely. "This is the greatest race in the world. There's more pressure..." And then he hesitated. "And so much hype."
And in his eyes there still resided the chronic hint of a wink.