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LAS VEGAS — The knock on the door came at about 3 p.m. local time on Thursday. Standing before Jacques Villeneuve when he opened the door to his Las Vegas hotel room was his close friend Jock Clear, who was there to inform the former Formula One world champion that Villeneuve was about to get married. His fiancée, Giulia Marra, had planned a surprise wedding for that day — in the middle of F1’s Las Vegas Grand Prix.
Over the past few months, just about everyone in Villeneuve’s inner circle was aware of what Marra had been plotting. They knew that she was planning for the couple to wed in Las Vegas, a wedding that would coincide with the Las Vegas Grand Prix. A fitting thing, considering Villeneuve, the son of late F1 legend Gilles Villeneuve, won the 1997 F1 World Championship.
Those involved knew this wouldn’t be a traditional wedding, or even a traditional ‘Vegas wedding’. The key difference was that it would be taking place inside the Las Vegas Grand Prix paddock. In true Las Vegas fashion, race organizers built a small chapel where couples could exchange nuptials. Villeneuve and Marra would be the first couple to walk down the aisle.
“It was stressing me out,” said Marra of keeping the wedding a secret. “I wanted to tell him, and I started to think, ‘What if? What if he doesn’t like it? What if he feels betrayed?’ That’s a very big surprise. So I crossed my fingers and hoped that he would have seen the romantic side of it.”
Old game, new venue
Maybe organizers didn’t envision a former world champion tying the knot inside the paddock, but they sure hoped that race fans would be enticed by the novelty of marrying or renewing their vows just across from the garage bays that house F1 teams. It would be memorable, no doubt. And race organizers went all out to give it that authentic Las Vegas feel intertwined with the kind of trappings you’d expect to see at a venue smack dab in the middle of an F1 garage.
The chapel featured a “Race to the Altar” sign above the main entrance. Inside, written on the backdrop of the dais where couples stand to exchange vows was the saying “Lights Out And Together We Go.” Licensed officiant Brian Mills, the co-owner of Theme Las Vegas Weddings and Events, sported a checkered flag patterned tie and pocket square, while his three assistants wore replica fire suits. A large mural in the corner depicted an F1 car driving down Las Vegas’ famous Strip.
Since the building had clear windows and doors, the sight of F1 crew members walking by wearing their team colors offered an unmistakable visual and additional authenticity. Some crew members even stopped to examine the oddity of a wedding venue right before them.
Even though the venue is unfamiliar, this is all old hat for Mills and his team. Over the past 22 years, Mills has done weddings at various music festivals and innumerable theme weddings where he’s dressed up as Elvis Presley.
In the 30 minutes before Villeneuve and Marra were set to arrive, they did a mic check, got everything arranged just so and went through the music selections. Of course, considering the setting, the familiar refrain of F1’s theme song was on the playlist. The only concern Mills had were for things beyond his control, like whether folks had the proper credentials and logistics.
“No nerves whatsoever,” Mills said. “Once the wedding starts, that’s the easy part. This is fun. I love doing this so much. … It’s just walk-up renewals and commitments. It’s just something fun, just so people can have that wedding experience without having to go through the whole practice.”
The surprise moment
That an F1 paddock is where Marra decided she and Villeneuve should marry is fitting. Across 10 years, he had made 163 starts, winning 11 races and the 1997 world championship. He remains involved as a television pundit.
So when Marra heard that a chapel was going to be onsite at the Las Vegas Grand Prix, she thought it would be an ideal location. With this being Villeneuve’s third marriage (and her first), this presented the opportunity to do something different.
“We wanted to go to our town hall where we live, sign, and then maybe in the future renew our vows,” Marra said. “But then I realized that I wasn’t happy with that; I was wanting a real marriage, something more. But we have a very big family; six kids and we’re traveling for work and for everyone, and it was just too much.
“So I thought we should get married while working and traveling. And Vegas was coming. So I wrote to the people that I worked with in F1, and I asked them about tips for Vegas. They told me, ‘Well, actually, would you get married in the paddock?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s awesome.’”
Villeneuve and Marra were always planning to travel from their home in Milan, Italy to the Las Vegas Grand Prix. The catch was that to surprise her future husband meant coming up with a cover story on why their older children should come with, and why the boys needed new suits. And a reason for her to buy a flowing white gown.
“You have to know what to say and when to say it,” Marra said. “I had to give him the truth without telling him the truth.”
What she came up with was that they would be attending a gala. Her husband never objected, nor did he suspect that something was up.
“No, no, no, she made me think we were coming here for something else,” Villeneuve said. “This was a big surprise.”
It wasn’t until Thursday that Villeneuve was clued in.
“Clear knocked on my door and asked, ‘What are you doing here? What do you do in Vegas?’” Villeneuve said. “I said, ‘Oh, well, you party.’ He’s like, ‘No, no. What do you really do in Vegas?’”
At this point, the 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner figured it out.
“Get married?” Villeneuve responded reluctantly. “And then it clicked.”
Like most Las Vegas weddings, the entire ceremony wrapped up fairly quickly. From the time the F1 theme music hit and Marra began walking down the short aisle, the whole thing lasted under 10 minutes.
Following the ceremony, the newlyweds sipped adult beverages, ate cake and conversed with family and friends. No different than what transpires at most wedding receptions. The main contrast, of course, was that this was an active F1 paddock. And in a few hours, drivers would be hitting the track for their first laps on the Las Vegas circuit.
‘It makes sense’
But “Race to the Altar” would be open throughout the weekend. On Friday, a couple had made a reservation to get married with Mills dressed up as Elvis, and the expectation was that other couples would decide on a whim to get hitched. He has a custom-made Elvis jumpsuit featuring little cars and car parts on it.
No one should be surprised that there will be an Elvis officiant in the paddock this week. It is Vegas, after all, where the unexpected is expected. Even if that theory was now being pushed to the limits with a chapel inside an F1 paddock.
“When you think about it, I spent most of my life in the racing paddock somewhere and most of it in Formula One,” Villeneuve said. “And most of the people I know on the planet are in here, so ultimately, even though it sounds weird, it makes sense.”
“To see a chapel in the paddock is fun. Normally, I don’t really do things in the limelight. This is the opposite. It’s fun. It’s part of Vegas. It’s part of F1. So it actually made it fun. It was nice to see some friendly faces turn up.”
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(Lead photo of Giulia Marra marrying Jacques Villenueve: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)