INDIANAPOLIS -- Potentially struggling to reach 33 entries -- much less 33 qualifiers -- the Indianapolis 500 got a big boost in the last week when programs were announced for former CART and Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve and NASCAR star Kurt Busch.
Villeneuve will drive a third car for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports while Busch steps into Andretti Autosport's fifth seat. Honda engines will power both cars.
If Villeneuve is the more surprising of the two additions, then Busch is the more intriguing. The 42-year-old son of F1 legend Gilles Villeneuve has maintained for the last 15 years that he has no interest in revisiting his past, whereas Busch has openly and repeatedly longed for the opportunity to step outside his stock car comfort zone.
"Maybe I'm a throwback, because I enjoyed the era of drivers racing different cars and testing themselves in other series," Busch said. "It's tough to do now for a variety of factors, but when the opportunity is there, I want to do it.
"This is really to challenge myself as a student of motorsports."
True to his word, Busch has been moonlighting in unusual ways for more than a decade. As far back as 2003, he tested a CART-specification Indy car for Bobby Rahal at Sebring International Raceway. In 2011, he contested the NHRA Gatornationals in a Pro Stock car, qualifying 12th and losing in the first round to Erica Enders-Stevens by just 0.003 seconds after an impressive 6.541-second pass.
In May, Busch did a "car swap" with Australian V8 Supercar star Fabian Coulthard at Circuit of the Americas, but he had a much more serious Indy car test with Andretti Autosport. He ran a full day at Indianapolis, reaching 218 mph and passing the mandatory Rookie Orientation Program. That means the 35-year-old Las Vegas native will simply require a brief refresher course this year before he can start searching in earnest for speed.
Running for the team that finished second, third and fourth at Indianapolis last year and with four teammates to learn from -- Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe and Carlos Munoz -- Busch shouldn't have any problem learning the basics of the Dallara DW12 Indy car. The challenge will come on race day, when he'll experience the turbulence of many cars on the track for the first time, not to mention the changes to his car as the tires wear and the fuel load burns off.
He'll also have to contend with faster pit stops and different restart procedures, things that challenge even the most veteran Indy car drivers.
Busch said he will pick the brains of NASCAR drivers with Indy car experience, including Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick and former Indianapolis 500 winner (and 2006 IndyCar Series champion) Sam Hornish Jr. As teammates at Penske Racing, Busch mentored when Hornish made his transition to stock car racing in 2008.
"Don't think I'm not going to call him and try to get that favor back!" said Busch with a laugh. "Nothing can prepare or get me ready when they drop that green flag and 33 of us rush into Turn 1. It's going to be a steady progression that I have to follow Andretti Autosport's lead.
"We have a full-blown test program to be the best prepared we can for the month of May," he added. "I will be a rookie, but I bring a lot of oval experience in and we'll see how we can blend that in."
Villeneuve, meanwhile, also will be required to take a refresher course, simply because it's been nearly two decades since he drove an Indy car. Today's cars have changed considerably from the Reynard/Ford-Cosworth that he drove to victory in the 1995 Indianapolis 500.
The French-Canadian's two-year stint in Indy cars was brief but spectacular. He won the CART race at Road America and finished sixth in the championship as a rookie in 1994 then went on to score four race wins, including Indianapolis, on the way to the CART title a year later.
Villeneuve then followed his father's footsteps by racing in Formula One, where he enjoyed a similar level of success in his first two years. Driving for the dominant Williams-Renault team, which was at its peak in the 1990s, only an oil leak prevented him from taking victory in his first F1 race. He ultimately finished second in the 1996 standings to Williams teammate Damon Hill before edging Michael Schumacher for the 1997 world championship.
In 1999, Villeneuve switched to the BAR team co-founded by his manager Craig Pollock, and the bottom began to fall out of his career. He never scored another Grand Prix victory and managed just one podium finish between 1999 and 2006, when he was dropped midseason by the Sauber-BMW team in favor of Robert Kubica.
His career has been in limbo ever since, with Villeneuve making only sporadic appearances in sports cars and NASCAR Nationwide Series road course races. That, coupled with his longtime hard-line stance against returning to Indy cars, was what made the news that he will return to Indianapolis this year so surprising.
Assuming he makes the field, Villeneuve's 19 years between Indianapolis 500 starts would establish a record.
"It's a question of opportunity," Villeneuve told reporters on a conference call. "We started talking with Sam Schmidt not long ago, actually a few weeks ago, and it all went fast. The discussions happened at the right time because I'd been watching the IndyCar Series last year and it looked extremely exciting with the new cars, to the point where I was angry and jealous that I wasn't racing. So that got me going again.
"I just wasn't considering going back to something I'd already done, mostly because there's been a few dark years for IndyCar," he continued. "But the whole group behind the series have been working really hard and done a tremendous job because it's getting back to the glory days with the races exciting, and also the field of drivers is becoming more and more impressive every year again."
Even though he finished second and first at Indianapolis in his two years running the 500, Villeneuve realizes he has a huge learning curve ahead of him to readjust to American-style open-wheel racing.
"The good thing is there's still plenty of laps to get done during the month of May, which is good," he said. "I've been on that racetrack. Even though it was a long time ago, it feels like it was yesterday. I hope I remember it well.
"I remember that it's the biggest race in the world and that it was exciting," he added. "This is a chance to do something good. I'm a racer at heart, and I will always be. That's what keeps me going; that's what keeps me alive. I don't want to be, for my kids, just the guy that used to race that they can see in books. I want them to see and live what I've already lived, to see it through my doing it actively."
Busch stopped short of calling the Indianapolis 500 the biggest race in the world but admitted to a similar level of excitement about participating.
"It is a big, big race, but I've grown up in the NASCAR world and the Daytona 500 is the biggest race I've participated in," Busch said. "I've always watched the Indy 500 with respect. It will be an amazing feeling and experience to be part of the Indy 500 spectacle because it is the most prestigious open-wheel race in America. I've been a stock car guy for the last 15 years, so we'll see how it compares."
Who will fare better on May 25? Villeneuve has the advantage when it comes to Indy car experience, but Busch is racing for a bigger and arguably stronger team, with greater engineering resources. Newman/Haas Racing and Andretti Autosport veteran Craig Hampson will engineer his car.
Villeneuve also won't have to deal with the pressure and potential distraction that Busch faces with his ambitious plan to "do the double" by driving his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet later that day in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
With the difficulty the IndyCar Series is having in filling the 33-car Indianapolis field, qualifying shouldn't be a problem for either driver. A top-10 finish would be a worthy achievement for both.
The bottom line is that the presence of Villeneuve and Busch will benefit the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500 by attracting national and international attention to the genuinely compelling storyline of a pair of high-profile drivers trying something new or different. For a series struggling for television viewers and sponsorship dollars, that can only be a positive.