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Gilles Villeneuve: Born to race

Legendary racing car driver Gilles Villeneuve rose from humble origins in a small Quebec town to win hearts around the world in the second most popular sport on earth. A shy, slight, family man who didn't smoke or drink, he was Canada's first Grand Prix winner. His life was tragically cut short at 32 years of age, doing what he loved best. Please note that you won't find racing footage on our site; the International Automobile Federation does not licence F1 footage for use on the Internet.

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Gilles Villeneuve loves speed. As a youngster, he races his 10-speed bike around his small home town of Berthierville, Que. But he falls in love with cars at 15 when his father buys him an old red '58 MGA two-seater for $100. He spends months fixing it up and starts drag racing after school, drawing local audiences to his theatrics. By the next year he's totalled three cars -- his father's new 1966 Pontiac and his second MGA.

In 1969/70, makers of the new snowmobiles begin to field racing teams to promote their new product. Villeneuve is hired as a driver/mechanic on a family friend's Quebec team. In his first year racing snowmobiles, he becomes North American champion. The next year he wins the Quebec crown and in 1973, the Canadian championship. Racing snowmobiles in whiteouts helped him hone his racing vision and instincts, he says later.
• Born in Chambly, Que., Jan. 18, 1950, Villeneuve and his family moved to Berthierville when he was eight. His father, Seville, was a travelling piano tuner, and Gilles' first passion was music. He would practise his trumpet five or six hours a day.

• Villeneuve met his wife, Joann, on a blind date. They married in 1970, the year he became Quebec snowmobile champion. On April 9, 1971, his son Jacques was born, and on July 26, 1973, his daughter Melanie. Unlike most other racers, he was a family man. His family accompanied him to races in their mobile home, even later when Ferrari would pay for expensive hotel rooms.

• In 1974, Villeneuve joined the fledgling Ecurie Canada Formula Atlantic car racing team. He sold his young family's mobile home (they had to live with relatives) to pay for his entry to the 1974 Player's Challenge series. Although he broke his leg midway through the season, he resumed racing six weeks later, still wearing a cast.

• In winter 1975, after winning 32 out of 36 snowmobile races for Skiroule, he finally abandoned snowmobile racing to concentrate on road racing.

• Road racing takes place on closed circuits with a variety of turns and straightaways. It flourished on abandoned airstrips in North America after WWII, when servicemen brought back small sports cars from Europe. The first road race in Canada took place on the Abbotsfield Airfield in British Columbia in 1949.

• On Aug. 27, 1967, the first Canadian Grand Prix for Formula 1 cars was held, at Mosport Park in Bowmanville, Ont. It moved in 1978 to Montreal and was won that year for the first time by a Canadian, Gilles Villeneuve, for whom the circuit is now named.
Medium: Radio
Program: Five Nights
Broadcast Date: Sept. 5, 1975
Guest(s): Gilles Villeneuve
Interviewer: Anne Graham
Duration: 2:35
Photo: Toronto Star Magazine

Last updated: November 6, 2014

Page consulted on November 14, 2014

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