To Bill Brack, the fact that a Canadian won this year's Indianapolis 500 comes as no surprise at all. A racing legend in the mid-1970s, Toronto-born Brack captured the 1973 Canadian championship, then went on to win again in 1974 and 1975. Among his competitors were soon-to-be-famous drivers Bobby Rahal and Keke Rosberg - and a dashing, daring Quebecer named Gilles Villeneuve. "He was certainly one of the best five or six drivers ever," says Brack, 59, who now manages a Jeep dealership in downtown Toronto. "He could have won the Indy 500 hands down. After Gilles came on the scene, it wasn't hard to believe that a Canadian could win anything." Villeneuve, of course, went on to international Formula One competition - and met a tragic death in 1982 at the Belgium Grand Prix. But fittingly, on May 28, the late driver's 24-year-old son, Jacques, became the first Canadian to capture the Indianapolis 500, North American auto racing's most prestigious title. It was, said the younger Villeneuve, "like winning the Olympics."
The Indy 500 is indeed the granddaddy of motor sports. Now 79 years old, it attracts more than 500,000 fans every year to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where crashes, caroms and photo finishes are the annual fare. But this year's race marked something different. The $1.8-million win by Villeneuve, who was born in Iberville, Que., but who now divides his time between Montreal and Indianapolis, has firmly established Canadians in the top ranks of a sport long dominated by Americans and Europeans.
Hard to believe? There are three main open-wheel - as opposed to stock-car - circuits in North America, roughly equivalent to two triple-A baseball leagues and a major league. At the farm-team level is the Player's Ltd./Toyota Atlantic Championship - David Empringham, 29, of Toronto, is the two-time defending champion. The other minor league is the PPG-Firestone Indy Lights Championship - 20-year-old Greg Moore of Maple Ridge, B.C., is No. 1 this year, with four wins in four starts. And at the apex of the racing pyramid is the PPG Indy Car World Series, a 17-race tourney where cars push 380 km/h. After his Indy 500 win, Villeneuve led the IndyCar standings.
It is telling, perhaps, that at the Indy 500 the tightest - and most controversial - competition was between two Canadians. For much of the race, Toronto-born Scott Goodyear led the pack. But with only nine laps to go in the 200-lap race, Goodyear made a costly gaffe. Under a caution flag, during which drivers must maintain their position, he passed the pace car - an infraction for which he was penalized two laps. As a result, Villeneuve, who had been penalized for a similar infraction at lap 65 but managed to come back to second place, inherited the lead and cruised to victory.
In many ways, it is remarkable that Canadians make it into major-league auto racing at all, let alone win the big races. IndyCar automobiles cost well over $500,000, and total team costs, including tires, spare parts and personnel, can reach $10 million a year. That makes the driver's ability to snare a corporate sponsor critical. And it puts Canadians at a disadvantage, since Canada has nowhere near the racing culture the United States does. Before being sponsored by Player's Ltd. - along with Molson, one of two major Canadian sponsors - Indy Lights prodigy Moore says he struggled to get by for two seasons. Now, however, he says the sponsorship "lets me go out there knowing that if I crash or anything goes wrong, we're going to be there for the next race."
Villeneuve has almost certainly left financing worries in the dust. Business manager Craig Pollock says that product-endorsement offers have nearly quadrupled since the Indy 500. "Jacques could be a walking billboard today, if he wanted," adds Pollock. The Indianapolis victory, however, has also led to media speculation that Villeneuve will soon make the jump to the even more lucrative Formula One circuit. Pollock, noting that Villeneuve's contract with Player's Ltd. does not expire until Sept. 15, acknowledged that there is "serious interest" from several Formula One teams - although one report that the driver has turned down an offer from Ferrari is "totally unsubstantiated."
If he does move to Formula One - as his father did - then comparisons between the two drivers are likely to come fast and furious. But to racing aficionados, father and son have little in common on the track. Jacques "doesn't drive like his father at all," says Brack. "His father was very wild - it amazed me that he could control the car. Jacques is smoother." And the driver himself seems to want to keep the Villeneuve family legacy - the stuff of sports-column sentimentality - in the background. Asked at a post-race news conference what his father would think of his winning at the famed Brickyard, Villeneuve replied simply: "I don't know. I guess he'd be happy."
Maclean's June 12, 1995