Schmidt Peterson Motorsports said Wednesday it has hired Villeneuve to race in this year's Indianapolis 500, 19 years after the Canadian driver first drank the milk in Victory Lane.
"IndyCar is growing again and that's why last year when I started watching races again, every time I watched I felt almost angry I wasn't there," the 1995 race winner said on a satellite hookup from France during a news conference held at the team's Indy headquarters.
At age 42, Villeneuve seemed content being a television analyst, musician and RallyCross driver. But when Schmidt and co-owner Rick Peterson, also from Canada, made a serious offer, he couldn't refuse. The 500 is scheduled for May 25.
Villeneuve certainly has a compelling resume.
As an Indy rookie in 1994, he qualified fourth and finished second to Al Unser Jr., and was named the race's rookie of the year.
The next season, the reigning CART rookie of the year was even better. He qualified fifth at Indy, forced Scott Goodyear into a costly mistake on the final restart and eventually held off Christian Fittipaldi to become the first and only Canadian winner of the race. Villeneuve completed all 400 laps at Indy in those two starts and won the 1995 CART title, too.
But after starting 33 races, winning six poles and five races in two IndyCar seasons, Villeneuve had a chance to become an international star. So he headed to Europe and joined Formula One—the series that made his late father, Gilles, a household name.
Like his dad, who died in a 1982 F1 qualifying crash, Villeneuve excelled on the world stage. In 163 career starts between 1996 and 2006, the younger Villeneuve reached the podium 23 times, won 11 races, 13 poles and claimed the 1997 world championship. At that point, American open-wheel racing wasn't even on the radar.
His journey back to North America began in 2007 when Villeneuve made the move to American stock cars. Over the next seven seasons, he dabbled in Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Le Mans series as well as sports cars.
Villeneuve regained interest in IndyCars last season as he watched how close and competitive the races had become. To him, it reminded him of the series he left almost two decades earlier.
Suddenly, he was interested in making a return—if he could find the right car and the right team.
"To get this opportunity is a gift," Villeneuve said. "A lot of people say when you have kids, you slow down. I want my kids to see me race."
Schmidt is the winningest team owner in Indy Lights history and already employs two full-time drivers in the better-known IndyCar series—Russia's Mikhail Aleshin and France's Simon Pageland. In previous years, Schmidt has always found a way to compete at Indy.
Getting Villeneuve might be the biggest coup of all for his low-budget team.
"Indy is a special place. We go there not to exist but to win the race," Schmidt said. "To see a guy that finished second and finished first there, I don't think he's going to have any problem going back."
Villeneuve becomes the fifth 500 winner on this year's entry list. The others are three-time winner Helio Castroneves of Brazil, two-time winner Scott Dixon of New Zealand, 2000 winner Juan Pablo Montoya of Colombia and Brazil's Tony Kanaan, the defending champ.
Another trip to Victory Lane would give Villeneuve two more milestones. He would break Al Unser's record for the longest gap between first and last victories. Unser went 17 years between his first Indy crown in 1970 and his record-tying fourth win in 1987. Villeneuve also would break Gordon Johncock's record for the longest gap between first and second wins at Indy, 1973 and 1982.
Villeneuve isn't motivated by records. He wants to win.
"I'm a racer," he said, explaining he does not plan to retire anytime soon. "I've got to find ways to get better and better and better, and I'm going there with a team that's very experienced and has been very successful as well."