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Villeneuve: Road America One Of World’s Best

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, June 19 2010

Former world driving champion Jacques Villeneuve takes a corner at his third favorite race track – Road America – during Nationwide practice. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Some NASCAR fans shook their heads sideways when it was announced that the Nationwide Series race which had been held at the Milwaukee Mile oval was being moved to 14-turn, 4.048-mile Road America.

Not Jacques Villeneuve. He nodded his head up and down.

“It’s always been one of my favorite tracks,” Villeneuve said in a phone interview after the first practice of the day on Friday for Saturday’s Bucyrus 150 presented by Menards.

Villeneuve has been to a few tracks in his time.

He spent spent 11 years driving Formula One cars at the world’s great road courses. He won 11 times and was the 1997 world driving champion.

Villeneuve spent two full seasons in the CART series, where he won five races and the 1995 series championship.

He won the 1995 Indianapolis 500.

The son of legendary Canadian driver Gilles Villeneuve, Jacques even has a track which bears his last name – Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, the track where the Canadian Grand Prix was held last weekend.

Road America, where he will be driving a the No. 32 Braun Racing Toyota this weekend, ranks among the best he’s seen.

“It’s in my top five,” Villeneuve said.

The others in his top five? he was asked.

“Let’s see. Spa in Belgium. Suzuka in Japan. And, well…Road America,” Villeneuve said. “I guess it’s in my top three.”

Villeneuve said the place is just plain fun.

IndyCar Series driver Graham Rahal, asked about Road America on Friday, added to that description.

“It’s four miles of fun,” Rahal said.

“It’s a proper race track,” Villeneuve said when asked to pinpoint his reasons for liking the track, which is located just outside the small village of Elkhart Lake in central Wisconsin. “It’s a long lap, difficult corners, a good rhythm, some good over-taking areas, some corners where you have to push yourself because they’re a little risky. There’ s a little bit of everything and there’s also good over-taking areas. It’s a good all-purpose racing facility.”

When it comes to race tracks, Villeneuve said, there are tracks which are fun to drive and tracks which produce good racing.

Road America combines the two, Villeneuve, who was among the eighth fastest drivers in every practice on Friday, said.

The track is very European-like. It is Le Mans-y as it runs through hilly, forested landscapes. So thick are some of the woods which border the track that deer have been known to jump onto the track. In 2006, Cristiano da Matta hit one of those deer during a Champ Car series test. Da Matta was severely injured.

Most of the straights and corners have names – names like “The Carousel”, “Thunder Valley”, “Canada Corner”, “The Speed Trap” and, the dreaded “Kinks”.

“I’ve always loved long, countryside tracks, where you feel like you’re going somewhere when you drive around it,” he said. “There’s hills, normally there’s a corner because there’s a mountain behind it, so there’s a reason for the layout. Those tracks are very demanding.”

NASCAR will be racing at Road America for the first time since the 1950s this weekend. Villenueve was asked if he thinks modern Nationwide cars are suited to racing there.

“It turns out to be quite a good track for stock cars,” he said. “They’re fun to drive around here and you can work your way around cars. I wasn’t sure, I was a little bit dubious before coming here, but it is actually fun.”

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, June 19 2010