RACING IS SHOW BUSINESS
by Larry Roberts
October 16, 1996
Jacques Villeneuve is arguably the hottest, most desirable race car driver in the world today. The son of a former Indy 500 winner and international Grand Prix driver, the young Canadian started racing as a boy driving competition go-karts and quickly switched over to Formula Atlantic cars and the Italian Formula 3 circuit in the late '80s. He moved to the IndyCar circuit in '94, took a checkered flag that first year out, then won the Big One at Indianapolis as well as the championship in his second season.
He made a surprise career move in '96 and landed a spot with the Williams/Renault Formula One team, becoming second-seat to teammate Damon Hill, another son of an Indy winner and Grand Prix world champion driver. Hill has won the world championship after the recent race at Suzuka, Japan, but it's Villeneuve who will be staying on with the Williams team while Hill has been invited to find another cockpit to operate from for '97.
Jacques Villeneuve is sitting on top of the racing world at the ripe old age of 25, and as with Superstars in all facets of the entertainment world, his success is due for the most part to his selection of a canny business agent. Without someone to handle and guide his career in its early days, Villeneuve might now just be climbing the IndyCar ladder, driving second-rate equipment and trying for a shot at the big time.
Craig Pollock, Villeneuve's business agent and close friend put it most succinctly in a recent interview. He stated unequivocally that a young driver, even one with unlimited talent and a recognizable name, can't hope to make the big time without a manager to take care of the intricacies that are part of today's multi-million dollar world of racing. "There are tax problems, contractual problems, endorsement problems (and) sponsor problems.." Even the fan mail must be handled with care to make sure that "his" driver gets the worldwide promotion that's needed.
Pollack and Villeneuve first met in a student/teacher relationship at an exclusive Swiss boarding school when Villeneuve was 11 years old. Pollock was a sports instructor teaching children of the rich and famous how to ski, skate, swim, and play handball, tennis and soccer. "He was 11 years old when I met him and he must have been about 15 when I left," Pollock said.
Pollock has always had an interest in motorsports and when he got out of teaching, he gravitated to the world of motorsports promotion and its television rights. The two met again in 1991 when Pollock was at the Formula One race at Suzuka where the former teacher was pursuing a TV deal, while his ex-student was in the pits networking with the Grand Prix crowd. They met again quite by accident and what had been an academic, albeit friendly relationship in bygone years developed into a mutually beneficial and friendly business relationship.
According to Villeneuve, signing on with Pollock was no easy matter. He traveled several times to Pollock's Swiss base of operation to try to convince his former mentor that the two of them could form a winning team. "He started out by helping me a little bit when I left Japan in '92," said the young driver, "and gradually became more important and more involved."
Being "involved" now means giving up all of his other ventures to handle the business affairs of his former pupil, and that includes a salary that runs into seven figures annually. Villeneuve is the first to admit that Pollock put him where he is today.
Like any other form of show business, a racing star is only as good as the agent who put him on top.