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Gilles Villeneuve, Gordon Smiley and me

We all, or many of us, have our memories of this day 31 years ago when Canada and the world lost Gilles Villeneuve.

It was May 8, 1982, and Gilles – still seething with anger at the double cross performed by Ferrari teammate Didier Pironi at the previous Grand Prix at Imola – was on it, as he always was, in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder when he collided with Jochen Mass’s car.

And then it was over.

I can still hear my wife, a few moments after 5 o’clock that Saturday afternoon, yell these words down the stairs to where I was in the cellar: “Villeneuve! Fighting for his life.”

She’d heard the news on the radio but there were no other details. No Internet in those days, we had to wait till 6 o’clock for the next CBC Radio news update and I couldn’t believe that the accident wasn’t the first item. (Some things never change.)

By 11 p.m., he was dead and it led the TV news. And then his story dominated the airwaves and the front pages of the newspapers until his funeral in the week that followed (click here).

I was crushed when I heard those five horrible words that my wife had called out to me, for several reasons. I’d been in my rec room that day, going over a checklist in anticipation of my debut the following weekend as a driver of supermodified racing cars at New York’s Oswego Speedway. I’d had some experience in less-powerful oval race cars, and had done a season of formula car racing, but I’d never been pushed off in as powerful a racing machine as a supermodified and I was apprehensive.

So, as well as being destroyed by the initial news that my hero had been grievously injured, my faith in my own existence was shaken. I started wondering if I was doing the right thing.

All weekend and into the week of the funeral, I was thinking (and you’ve heard this sort of thing from professional drivers after someone of the talent and stature of, say, a Jim Clark or an Ayrton Senna dies by racing accident), “If it can happen to Gilles, it can happen to anybody.”

I thought about that, a lot.

But I’d pushed those thoughts aside by the time the following Saturday arrived. It was May 15. I was in the pits at Oswego and just about ready to strap into the car for my first warmup session when the late Mike Stone, a race driver from Toronto, walked up to me and said these words:

“Gordon Smiley just hit the wall at Indy. He never had a chance.”

Smiley was trying to qualify for his third Indianapolis 500 that day and had overcorrected going into Turn 3, sending the car straight into the concrete at 200 miles an hour, destroying it and himself.

I still went out to race, but Gilles Villeneuve and Gordon Smiley were heavy on my mind and I just couldn’t bring myself to put my foot down all the way – that night, or ever.

They say all things happen for a reason.

I wonder.

  • Gilles Villeneuve, Gordon Smiley and me
  • Gilles Villeneuve, Gordon Smiley and me

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