News & Media

Notebook: Villeneuve makes a surprise road trip

July 21, 2011, Dave Rodman,

Heads to Loudon to press the flesh, seeking future opportunities in NASCAR

Penske Racing Nationwide Series crew chief Todd Gordon was in his hauler last weekend at New Hampshire, working on his race notes for regular driver Brad Keselowski, when he heard someone walk into his trailer's lounge.

It wasn't a mechanic, it wasn't his car chief -- it wasn't even Keselowski. It was a totally unexpected visitor, but the red-framed eyeglasses were a dead giveaway.

It was former Formula One world champion Jacques Villeneuve, who'd made his Penske debut a few weeks earlier with a near race-winning performance at Road America. "JV's" next outing with Penske is at his hometown race in Montreal, at the track named after his father, the late F1 standout Gilles Villeneuve.

"The Cup drivers are at Watkins Glen, so there's not really any seats available in Nationwide."


Winning the August race means enough to Villeneuve that, on the spur of the moment, he jumped in his white Audi and made the trip to Loudon to surprise Gordon and dozens of other friends in both NASCAR garages.

"It was cool -- I didn't know he was coming," Gordon said. "I was sitting up in the lounge and in walks Jacques. I was as surprised as you were -- I looked up and saw those red glasses and it was 'Hey, what's up dude?'"

Outside his race cars, Villeneuve is pretty low key. The trip was no big deal, he said.

"It's not far, only a four-hour drive, so you might as well do that," Villeneuve said. "It was good to see the guys again -- since Elkhart Lake -- and to chat a bit, to see what we could do different for Montreal. We were good at Elkhart and we want to be even better in Montreal."

Asked to sum up his experience at Road America -- which included a critical restart violation and a multi-car collision later on -- Villeneuve smiled before giving a one-word answer.

"Exciting," he said. "We were very competitive there and obviously I paid the price for a mistake on a restart, when I tucked-in behind [Michael McDowell]. But I've learned the rule [drivers must maintain their lane until crossing the start/finish line] and obviously that won't happen again. Ultimately that cost us a huge amount."

"At Elkhart, our car was the best under braking and the brakes survived the race, so that was good. We were good in the slow-speed corners -- that's where I was gaining most of my time -- so I think our basic setup is quite all right for Montreal."

With plenty of future racing opportunities on the line, Villeneuve spent considerable time shaking hands and reacquainting himself with many in NASCAR. Not only does he not have a ride for next month's first road course event at Watkins Glen, he's also uncertain what 2012 might bring.

"There's nothing definite," Villeneuve said. "It's the same -- we're just carrying on and all I can hope is the good races get good TV coverage when we do the road courses [and] the sponsors are very happy so that at some point it will inflate into a proper, all-year-round ride.

"The Cup drivers are [at Watkins Glen], so there's not really any seats available in Nationwide. A second car still needs budget and they've got to race every weekend. To build an extra car -- because I wouldn't want to go in a bad car, either -- so to build a second car that's on par with the main car is a lot of work. So they need to look at it seriously if the team is going to do that. It's a lot of work, and obviously it needs the budget."

Right now, Gordon's primary focus is on Montreal, saying he thoroughly enjoys working with Villeneuve.

"He's a dedicated racer and it's fun to deal with him and fun to be around him," Gordon said. "Obviously, performance is something that he's after and I think there's a huge peace to winning that race in Montreal, especially now with the questions about whether we'll have another one.

"I wasn't sure how I was going to handle having a different race car driver for just two races, but that transition, I think, has been pretty fluid."

* Montreal race's future in doubt because of funding

Whitney to Ford

Whitney Motorsports' crew chief Tony Furr confirmed at New Hampshire that Dusty Whitney's two-car team would switch from Chevrolet to Ford beginning with the Cup Series' next race at Indianapolis.

"Right now we have two cars in our shop that have been switched over to Ford," Furr said, adding that the team planned to have a total four cars converted at a cost of $8,000 each.

"We feel like we can be a player, there, and that's what we want to be."


"Hopefully, in the next month we'll have everything we've got there -- we have 10 cars total -- switched over," Furr said.

Furr said the cars would use Roush Yates Ford FR-9 engines and that "we'll race about 10 races with one of the cars, and start-and-park the other." Furr said the team had been happy with its Ernie Elliott engines "until we got to Daytona and Talladega, and there's four races there you just can't give up."

"For us to get that [engine] program we had to switch manufacturers," Furr said. "We tried with Chevrolet and it didn't seem like they really wanted to give us the time of day. Our best option was Ford [because] they've been open hands to us and they promised to do whatever it takes to make us happy -- and that's all we can do."

Furr said they would not track test a Ford before Indy, and with his recent experience with all four manufacturers, that was not much of an issue. He said he was more pleased "to have a lot more horsepower with Ford, especially at the plate stuff. We feel like we can be a player, there, and that's what we want to be."

On Jack Roush's strong recommendation, Whitney used former Roush Fenway contract driver Erik Darnell at New Hampshire. Furr said that as far he was concerned, Darnell could be in the car for the rest of the year and thought Whitney felt the same way.

"[Darnell] proved himself [at New Hampshire] and he hasn't been in a car in a couple years -- and one of these [new cars] on top of that," Furr said. "He come up here and made this race, there was quite a few good cars that went home and he was solidly in the field. We're real happy with him."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.