For the past two years Glenn Butt has staged a mid-winter auto racing show here in Toronto called the Canadian Motorsports Expo. Given that those two shows were less than resounding successes, it would have been no surprise if he had thrown in the towel. However, Butt – with strong support from his dad Ed Butt – has soldiered on and this weekend he presented the third edition of his Expo.
The show was in a better location – the International Centre – and it seemed to have a stronger array of exhibitors, the making of a modest but solid improvement. However one thing made all the difference this year. Somehow, Butt had managed to arrange for Canadian hero driver Jacques Villeneuve to appear at the show.
An autograph signing and a press conference were laid on. This brought out race fans and the local racing media in droves. The man who had a reputation of never signing autographs and only reluctantly talking to the media contradicted these preconceptions.
As the line of autograph seekers snaked down past the booths almost out the front door, Villeneuve – with one of those take-my-picture manic grins – signed everything that was pushed in front of him, books, posters, flags, model cars – even one boy’s cast. That session ran longer than planned but eventually he faced the intrepid local media.
The reporters peppered him with questions. When asked about things in his remarkable history – the Indy 500 win, his Champ Car Championship, his Formula One championship, even his difficult years with BAR – he willingly commented on every part. But the burning questions concerned his plans for 2009. Unfortunately, that’s a different st
As of now, his only deal is to run in the Speedcar series, a pseudo-stock car series that runs in the oil-rich middle east (where he has achieved mediocre results mixed in with a lot of other has-been F1 drivers). And he is hoping yet again to break in to NASCAR racing. Does he have anything definite in NASCAR? No. Would he consider trying to race in another series, like ALMS or the European equivalent? No. He seemed to be taking the position that only F1 and NASCAR were the top rank racing series and anything else would be beneath him. Hence, if F1 is no longer an option, then it has to be NASCAR – or nothing.
Villeneuve can mouth the words – that the people who succeed in NASCAR are the people who have grown up in that kind of racing. But, despite that, he seems to think that if he can only find a personal sponsor who will help him get one good ride, then things will open up for him from there and he can build a new career as a NASCAR star. This despite the recent history that has seen so many drivers from the open-wheel series hired on with great expectations only to see their careers as NASCAR drivers turn out to be in the mid-pack and – in many cases – short-lived Reference Dario Franchitti, Patrick Carpentier, Sam Hornish, and Paul Tracy. And that is the modern version of the story of guys like Christian Fittipaldi and Danny Sullivan.
You might point at Tony Stewart as one driver who came out of Indy cars and was successful in NASCAR. For sure. But, his roots were in the little mid-western bullrings – driving the rear-engined Indy cars was a transition for him. And when he decided to make the switch to NASCAR, he did what he needed to do – he got behind the wheel and drove and drove and drove. Sure Tony has lots of natural ability, but he put in the seat time that enabled him to make the transition from the mid-pack driver with flashes of brilliance that he was in the first couple of years driving in the Busch Series into the solid championship-winning driver he became after he made the move up to the Cup series.
Does Villeneuve really understand this? Is he really prepared to make the commitment to get behind the wheel and drive and drive until he gets the hang of these big heavy stock cars or the race craft needed to run side-by-side on a track like Bristol with 42 other drivers who are just as determined to prove themselves or the strategy that’s needed to win a 500-mile stock car race?
Well so far his apprenticeship has been seven truck races and two Cup races in 2007. Last year he made just one start – the Montreal Nationwide race. His best finish in all those races was 14th – it’s a long learning curve. Do I believe that he has been down at Rockingham or VIR or New Smyrna running laps day after day? All he talked about was his hope that the magic of the Villeneuve name would produce a sponsor and then he would be on his way to his new career as a NASCAR driver. It’s almost as if he thought that the Jean Girard character (the French F1 champion who jumps over to NASCAR and immediately challenges Ricky Bobby for supremacy) was proof such a thing was possible. No, Jacques, Juan Montoya is the real thing and he is still not challenging the front-running drivers after more than two full seasons of committed effort.
To my way of thinking, if Villeneuve was going to find that magic sponsor who was willing to buy his way into NASCAR racing in a real way, it would have happened by now. In 2007, he had to be buying those rides with his own money. In 2008, he got just one deal – and that was a special one-off deal to drive at his ‘home’ track’ in Montreal. If I had been the promoter of that race, I would have bought the ride for him. But nothing else at all in 2008. What are the odds that this year – when it seems like half the established NASCAR drivers can’t find sponsorship – he’s going to find a deal that will inject him into NASCAR?
Other former F1 drivers have been able to keep on racing in other series – in a sports car series like ALMS or Grand-Am or in a competitive sedan series like the German Masters (DTM) series – but Villeneuve says that’s beneath him. So what was he doing signing autographs in a little auto show in the snows of Malton?
Is Villeneuve a delusional has-been hoping for his next “close-up” like the legendary Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard? I don’t think so. But his hopes of making his comeback as a NASCAR champion are hard to take seriously. Hopefully he will go back to the Le Mans 24-hour in a Peugeot again this year – and win the race and find a comfortable place in the sports car ranks among his former colleagues.