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 sot 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 mc 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.