Back in the late 1980s, Stéphane Proulx was one of a gaggle of young and talented Canadian racing drivers who was preparing to stand up and let the world take notice.
Proulx’s Québécois mother, Monique, was a pioneer woman racer in what still is, primarily, a man’s sport.
She gave as good as she got on the track and was gorgeous, to boot. By landing a sponsorship from Virginia Slims cigarettes, she was able to compete as high up as the Formula Atlantic series in the 1970s.
Her son – who inherited his mother’s good looks – was successful in Formula Ford, Atlantics (he won the F-Atlantic race at the first Molson Indy Vancouver in 1990, for example) and raced overseas in Formula 3000.
There were some who said he had the talent to go all the way to Formula One.
Perhaps one of the variables that set the French-Canadian Proulx apart from the other young guns of the day was that while he was not exactly crazy, he was certainly a little off-kilter.
He was a true free spirit who marched to his own drummer – unlike most of the robot-like NASCAR drivers or Champ Car pilots racing this weekend in Phoenix or Mexico.
He relished living on the edge all of the time, not just some of the time, as is usually the case.
In the early evening of July 12, 1988, on the 401 near Kingston, OPP Const. Joseph Thomas Albrecht clocked Proulx’s motorcycle travelling at or above 200 km/h. He activated his lights and siren and followed Proulx for about 25 km before getting him to pull over.
Albrecht asked Proulx why he hadn’t stopped sooner.
“I didn’t know you were behind me,” the race driver replied. “When you’re doing 220, you don’t look to the rear.”
On July 26, Proulx appeared in provincial court in Kingston before Judge P.H. Megginson, a no-nonsense guy. The prosecutor was J.B. (Jack) McKenna, another no-nonsense guy. Proulx did not have a lawyer – or a chance.
Some 15 minutes later, Megginson threw Proulx in jail for 21 days. When Proulx protested, Megginson said this:
“You committed a dangerous criminal offence, sir. I have sentenced you – that’s it.”
Seven months later, Proulx was back in court in Kingston. This was not an appeal of the first sentence; it was a whole new trial.
The judge this time was J.P. Coulson who – judging by the transcript – had an idea who he was dealing with. Proulx was represented by John Wonnacott, a lawyer from Belleville who happened to be a racing fan. The prosecutor was J.H.R. Bett, a no-nonsense guy like McKenna – but not quite.
Thirty minutes later, Coulson dismissed the charge, urging the young accused to slow down on the public highways.
“We would be very proud to have you represent us and do well in international racing … We want you to live long enough to do it.”
(Transcripts of both trials can be found attached to my column at Wheels.ca.)
Richard Spenard, in Toronto promoting Michelin winter tires, started to chuckle the other day when I reminded him of this incident.
Spenard employed Proulx at the time as an instructor at Shannonville Motorsports Park, near Belleville.
He remembered Monique Proulx and he remembered her son.
“I did some oval racing when I first started – mini-stocks at St-Eustache. Monique was there and she had the most expensive car. It was a $30,000 BMW and we were driving $700 stock cars. She wasn’t a huge talent, but she was okay.
“But her son was very, very good. Because I was friends with Monique, I was able to introduce Stéphane to motorsport right from the age of 15.”
Spenard said he started to wonder what had happened when Proulx didn’t show up for work one day.
“He called me from jail and told me (he’d been locked up for speeding). I thought it would be easy for me to bail him out because he had a day job. I told him, `If worse comes to worst, I’ll get you out in the day and take you back at night!’ ”
Spenard was in for a surprise.
“I went there and they were treating him like a criminal. I just couldn’t believe it. He was beside himself. He couldn’t believe he had to be there.
“So I called a friend, John Wonnacott, the lawyer. We met him in Belleville; he was a race car fan. We called him up and said, `We have a situation.’ Through his work, he was able to free him (after eight days). He did a really good job (arranging for a new trial and the dismissal of the charge).”
But as he remembered more of the details, Spenard couldn’t help but laugh at Proulx’s audacity.
“Interestingly, while he was in jail, he was negotiating his future with Player’s. He was in the middle of signing the contract with Player’s and he had a lot of nerve to be able to call up the president of Imperial Tobacco to say: `I’m sorry I can’t meet you to sign the contract. I’m in jail!’ And he got away with it!
“But that was Stéphane. From the age of 15, he was always getting into situations like this; he had this way of finding himself in trouble. He was a great kid, considering that he had no dad and came from what some would say was a very dysfunctional family.
“But he worked very hard, he went to Europe with Player’s and, unfortunately, passed away at a very young age. It was a big loss.”
Stéphane Proulx died on Nov. 21, 1993, in Ste-Adèle, Que., of complications from AIDS. He was 27.
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