The winner of the 1995 Indy 500, Canadian Jacques Villeneuve, rode out for a refresher course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Tuesday afternoon and it didn’t take long for him to hit his stride.
Driving for the half-Canadian-owned Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team, the ’95 CART champion and the 1997 F1 World Champion ran 83 laps around the 2.5-mile oval raceway and turned a best lap of 217.742 miles an hour before calling it a day.
Another high-profile driver was also out warming up Tuesday. NASCAR Sprint Cup star Kurt Busch, racing for Andretti Autosport, drove 66 laps and recorded a best lap of 220.844 mph before rain brought an early end to the day.
As well as threatening skies and cool weather, the drivers had to contend with a stiff headwind going into Turn One. More than one Indy veteran has lost control when the wind’s been blowing hard.
“It took a while to get there,” Villeneuve said. “The first few laps were surprising because it felt like I was going fast and I looked and it was 180 (mph). I thought, ‘There’s still a long way to go,’ and then 190. And another 10 laps I started getting in the rhythm, and once you start going flat all around, it becomes easy. I think your brain, your vision just needs to get used to driving at speed.”
When Villeneuve first arrived at Indy in 1994, he finished second in the race and was named Rookie-of-the-Year. The year he won, in 1995, he came from two laps down to do it – an incredible accomplishment. He hasn’t raced an IndyCar there since.
“It felt crazy fast back then and it felt crazy fast today,” he told PR people for the Verizon IndyCar Series. “We weren’t trimmed out yet, but there was no point with the (25 mph) wind and the track was very green. At the end, we even managed to work on the mechanical set-up of the car and that made it nicer. ”
Practice for this year’s 500-mile race will start on Sunday, May 11. Qualifying for the May 25 race will be held on the weekend in between.
As many as three Canadians could qualify for this year’s race, with Villeneuve and veteran Alex Tagliani joining full-time driver James Hinchcliffe of Oakville.
By the way, the “Peterson” in Schmidt Peterson Motorsports is businessman Ric Peterson of Calgary, who has done well in the oil patch. Because of that success, he was able to race open-wheel cars in the Toyota Atlantic championship and stock cars in CASCAR. He bought into Sam Schmidt’s IndyCar team a year ago.
Busch, meantime, was out on the track getting comfy in his car as he gears up to become the fourth driver to attempt to do “the double” on the Sunday of the U.S. Memorial Day weekend – the Indy 500 and then the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, N.C., later in the day.
John Andretti, Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart have each tried it. Stewart, who co-owns Busch’s Sprint Cup car at Stewart Haas Racing with Gene Haas, is the only one to date to complete all 1,100 miles.
“This attempt is something serious,” Busch told IndyCar PR. “It’s an amazing challenge. Overall, it was a good day just to settle in with the team. It felt good to give feedback to the team from the car and have them explain things to me how we’re going to move forward. Now that all the newness and moments of smiling and ‘this is Indy’ are wearing off, that’s when the serious hat goes on and we start to ramp up the program.”
Andretti Autosport’s Hinchcliffe, who joined other Verizon IndyCar Series drivers in watching the first cars on the oval in 2014, said he expects Busch to be a contender.
“I think we’re going to be strong in the race and I think we’ve showed that the past couple of years,” said Hinchciffe, who drives the No. 27 United Fiber & Data car.
However, “he has more professional races under his belt than the rest of the field combined with as many races as NASCAR runs and I’m sure he’s going to adapt pretty quickly.”
– NORRIS McDONALD