Trading wheelchair for derby car

Russ Villeneuve looks back as he tries to work his car free Sunday at the Flying Dust Father's Day Smash. Although he didn't win, Villeneuve said he was happy just to get in the car

By Mac Christie

Some people get to realize a lifelong dream once. Others don’t at all. But Russ Villeneuve got to live out his for a second time this past weekend.

With the help of a group of friends, Villeneuve took part in the 12th annual Flying Dust Youth and Disabled Wish Foundation’s Father’s Day Smash June 18 and 19 on Flying Dust First Nation.

Villeneuve, 37, a small-engine mechanic at the Meadow Lake Co-op, has used a wheelchair since an arthritis disease led to the removal of his hips at age 14.

“It was always a dream of mine to be in a demolition derby,” he said. “I used to sit and wish ‘Oh man I wish I could be in the derby, it’s too bad I can’t be.’”

He mentioned it to his friend Don Shane.

“He said, ‘Well why can’t you be?’” Villeneuve recalled. “I said “How am I going to drive it?’”

Shane said not to worry, that he’d build him a car – with hand controls.

So last year Shane and a group of friends got together and built Villeneuve his first car.

“I can’t take credit for it,” Shane said of this year’s car. “We built it in my shop, but it was a lot of people that helped out one way or another.”

Since Villeneuve has the use of his feet, the only thing different, said Shane, is the car has a hand throttle.

“It’s a bit more work,” said Shane, “but it’s worth it you know? Just to see the twinkle in his eye.”

Villeneuve’s friend Jeremy Head who helped with the car added Villeneuve just wanted to drive in the derby.

“He shouldn’t be held back because he has a disability.”

Part of the reason Villeneuve wanted to participate is that the derby is a fundraiser for children with disabilities.

“I was a kid with a disability,” he said. “It’s going to benefit the kids and they get to see another guy in a wheelchair cruising around out there.”

Villeneuve noted he just tries to do things like everyone else, but if he is an inspiration for someone along the way, that’s great.
“I could care less if I win,” he said. “If I help them raise money just by showing up, that’s great.”

On the first day of the derby, Villeneuve was understandably nervous.

“I didn’t sleep very well last night,” he admitted. “The nerves will go away as soon as I’m in the ring. I just don’t want to be in the first heat.”

Villeneuve’s wife Dawna said she was worried about the car catching fire, because Villeneuve can’t escape as easily as the other drivers.

Still, she was excited.

“I know how important it is to him, and I know how hard they’ve worked on the car.”

His daughters, Miranda, 16, and Trista, 7, were excited too.

“I know he really loves this,” Miranda said. “I know he’s going to win.”

Villeneuve was placed in the final heat of the day. However, he experienced driveshaft trouble early on and only got a few hits in, placing fifth.

Afterward, he was upbeat about his showing.

“I’m not disappointed,” he said. “Just getting in the car is good enough for me.”

On Sunday, Villeneuve was placed in the third free-for-all heat, gunning for a berth in the final.

“I’m ready to go 100 per cent,” he said. “There’s going to be some good hits today.”

He got several solid hits in, but then got hung up on another car, finishing second in the heat.

Afterward, though wistful that he was hung up, he said he’d be back next year, and maintained he was just happy to have taken part.

“It’s pretty powerful,” he said. “I appreciate that somebody actually took the time and the effort to build me a car. And the work and the time that goes into building a derby car is astounding.”

But at the end of the day, he said the story isn’t about him.

“It’s going to a good cause, to children with disabilities,” he said. “That’s why I do it. And I hope people don’t forget that.”

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