Stephane Proulx – Tragic Enigma

This article first appeared on www.autosport.com on 21st November, 2013

Just like a buzzin’ fly
I come into your life
Now I float away
Like honey in the sun

Tim Buckley

As Jacques Villeneuve celebrated his 1993 Toyota Atlantic title success and plotted his ascent to Indycar, a fellow Canadian, who was once thought to possess just as much talent and who shared the same ample backing from the Player’s tobacco firm as the future world champion, was in a Montreal hospital bed dying from an AIDS related illness.

On November 21 1993 he tragically succumbed. His name was Stephane Proulx and he was just 27 years of age.

Stephane Proulx – Photo with thanks to Stella-Maria Thomas

Only a few years earlier Proulx had been touted as the next big Canadian hope, the Player’s budget he had sourced and lobbied for (including phone calls from a prison cell – more on this later) was nailed on and he had moved to the UK for a crack at Formula 3000.

Never short of self-confidence, Proulx was totally convinced he was going to be the first Canadian since the great Gilles Villeneuve to achieve grand prix success.

Those in the know within the tight-knit Canadian racing fraternity regarded Proulx as perhaps the best to emerge from the country since Bertrand Fabi, who was tragically killed in a Formula 3 testing accident at Goodwood in 1986.

Even two decades on, Proulx’s career is as baffling, contradictory and enigmatic as his own opaque character. Even his few close friends, team-mates and housemates could not decipher his complications and intensity.

Proulx’s upbringing was bohemian and carefree. From Sainte-Adele, Quebec North West of Montreal, the young Stephane was molly-coddled shamelessly by his flamboyant and beautiful ex-model and actress mother Monique, who was just 19 when she bore her son.

Dabbling in racing herself, Monique Proulx competed in various Trans-Am and Formula Atlantic races throughout the 1970s without any great success. Her partner during most of the 70s was the local ‘racing doctor’ Jacques Fortin, the pair even sharing a Trans-Am BMW on a few occasions.

Monique Proulx is the centre of attention at an event in Montreal, 1975

 

Stephane’s biological father left Monique when their son was just a few months old. The matriarch of the family was fiercely protective of her son, something which was evident even when she visited him in Europe, while he competed in F3000.

Their relationship was intense, perhaps a legacy of the tough single parent upbringing and the fact that Monique’s own family disowned her and Stephane after a bitter rift in the early 1970s.

But without this pushy ‘racing Mom’, young Stephane could well have ended on the wrong side of the tracks. Although reserved and relatively shy, the youngster had a knack of getting into scrapes and it was only when Monique fixed her son up with a re-location to California in 1983 (when he was 17) that his talent behind the wheel of a racing car really became evident.

The instructor at the Riverside circuit was happy to make the most of Stephane’s potential after already seeing his aptitude and inherent skill back in Canada in local kart events. That instructor was respected driving school founder and notable Formula Atlantic racer Richard Spenard.

“I think that as raw talents go, Stephane was comparable to Bertrand Fabi, absolutely,” says Spenard, some thirty years on from his first meetings with the Proulxs. “But at the same time, I don’t think Stephane had the mindset to go all the way to F1.

“He was serious in his racing but in return he had a personality that some people did not get along with. He was a bit of a show-off, let’s put it that way. I could see sometimes the way he presented himself which could piss people off in major way.”

As well as giving Fabi a run for his money, Proulx learned the ropes as a mechanic at the Riverside race school and exchanged this work for laps in the Formula Fords. It was a simple existence that perfectly suited his unconventional upbringing.

“He was struggling really, sleeping and washing in his car,” remembers Spenard. “He was not living the big life!

“He had no money but he really wanted to do that to prove he could be his own person away from Monique. I fully expected him to really push on with his career but in the end he didn’t.”

For the next few years Stephane returned to Sainte-Adele, living with his mother, friends and generally getting into minor scrapes with the authorities and taking on local pretenders in small karting dust-ups. To earn a living he was selling vacuum-cleaners door-to-door in and around some tough suburbs of Montreal. It was hardly a stellar start to a supposed professional racing career.

“One day I called him and asked what he was doing for a living, he answered that he was selling vacuum cleaners, so I told him that I would trade his vacuum cleaners for his registration at my new race school at Shannonville,” remembers Spenard.

“Of course he won the evaluation competition easily and then won the FF2000 championship the following year, which got us in the loop with Rothmans.”

This is where Proulx’s known and documented career really begins. After taking the 1987 Canadian FF2000 title for the Spenard-David Racing school team, he followed it up with lucrative outings in the Porsche 944 Turbo Cup in ’88. In partnership with Spenard and the driving school team that ran Proulx was respected sponsorship/commercial guru, Raymond David.

Developing a close relationship with Player’s tobacco, David approached Spenard about sponsoring someone for an International F3000 campaign in Europe for 1989 and possibly beyond, with the aim of getting the next Canadian talent into F1.

Spenard instantly put Stephane’s name forward and the deal with Player’s was done, or so Spenard and David thought.

“As he was negotiating with the president of Imperial Tobacco Canada which Player’s was a brand of, Stephane got a huge speeding ticket on his motorcycle, and ended up going to jail,” chuckles Spenard.

“I tried to bail him out but I failed because the judge made an example of him and sent him down for two weeks. Mind you he had been clocked at 240km/h on the highway without a helmet on!

“So there he was negotiating from his cell room, to make sure that the president of Imperial Tobacco would not forget him. As soon as he got out of the clink he went and signed the contract and headed off to Europe.

“How he did that from a prison cell I am not entirely sure. But he did it!”

Fresh from prison, Proulx was placed with Mike Collier’s GA Motorsport team for the 1989 F3000 season. With a sizeable budget, but having driven nothing more powerful than a Formula Ford 2000 car, he arrived in St Albans where he shared digs with his GA team-mate Philippe Favre.

“I got on well with Stephane, as we could converse in French,” remembers Favre. “He was a quiet guy and was quite intense but we always had a laugh, sometimes at his expense which he wasn’t that keen on.

“I remember one time we went to test at a small track in Wales called Llandow and Stephane was really trying to get his position strengthened within the team. Remember that he had a big budget with a spare car, big motorhome, etc, so obviously we were quite jealous!

“The team had to put this temporary chicane in at Llandow with tyres and Stephane was out and demanding lots of time in the car while myself and the other GA drivers – Jacques Goudchaux and Eric van de Poele – just sat there wondering what to do.

“So while Stephane is out driving we came up with a plan. We drank lots of water at lunchtime and then told Mike we would go out to the chicane to watch Stephane’s progress.

“Every time he passed us we ran out from behind the barrier and we all pissed on the exit of the chicane, just where he put the power down.

“So Stephane comes back to the pits a few laps later and says to Mike: ‘It is weird because I keep losing traction and getting wheelspin at the chicane.’ All three of us were on the floor laughing so much but Stephane was not too amused!

“In the end Stephane always seemed to want to be with just himself and he was not that sociable. He ended up moving out of the house and getting his own flat. But I have nice memories of him.

“I liked to get on with all my team-mates and I always tried to get to know them. It wasn’t so easy with Stephane though, he always seemed to be somewhere else in his thoughts.”

Proulx’s first season in Europe showed plenty of promise but all too often the pace was followed by an incident. Learning the circuits and the culture of a down to earth British team, he made progress in a rookie season that included quality adversaries such as Jean Alesi, Erik Comas, Eric Bernard, Martin Donnelly and Mark Blundell.

Spa is always an indicator of a driver’s worth and in 1989, on his first ever visit, Proulx qualified in seventh place. A few weeks later at Le Mans he took his first points with a mature drive to fifth. Team boss Collier felt there was much for the Canadian to be proud of.

“He came from nowhere really and was totally unknown to us,” recalls Collier.

“I have to be honest and say that his commercial clout attracted us more than anything on his CV. But he had some terrific pace and was completely fearless in the car.

“He was slightly aloof, didn’t have a noticeable circle of friends and seemed to be a bit of a loner but I really put that down to shyness. I suppose you could call him an enigma, he was tough to get to know properly.

“Ultimately it was a massively steep learning curve for him when he came over here. He didn’t have that experience in other formulas which really hurt him in ’89. He had fast hands and had really good reflexes and over a lap or two he was really very fast indeed.

“My opinion is that he lost focus over a race because he wasn’t fit enough in that first season with us.

“The physical demands of F3000 in that era were high and I think that caught him by surprise a little. His engineer that year was ‘Luffy’ [David Luff] who used to say to me that he needed a bit of extra training to build his stamina up.”

For 1990, a shrewd Keith Wiggins realised he needed a budgeted driver after losing the Marlboro F3000 money to DAMS. Pacific Racing was about to enter its second season of F3000 and Proulx fitted the bill perfectly.

Now that he knew the circuits and in the Lola T90/50, which had the upper hand on the Reynard 90D, Proulx appeared to be well ensconced in the top six after several impressive pre-season tests.

Proulx with Keith Wiggins at Brands Hatch in 1990 – Photo with thanks to Stella Maria-Thomas

Following a messy wet race at Donington Park where he finished a lowly 12th after a tyre mix-up, the pre-season form came to the surface again in the second round at Silverstone: the turquoise Pacific Lola qualified fourth, beaten only by Damon Hill, Allan McNish and eventual title winner Erik Comas.

However, in a microcosm of what would become his 1990 season, a second lap accident at Club meant all the promise came to a violent thud in the tyrewall.

“There were occasions when he was blindingly quick but a shunt wasn’t too far away with Stephane,” recalls Wiggins.

“But his biggest enemy was his emotional side really. He lost his cool quite quickly in the car and at F3000 level that is not the way to be. Looking back on it he worked well with his engineer Roly Vincini, who himself could be quite volatile every now and again. But generally they worked well together.

“Stephane was a rough diamond in the car which was the polar opposite of what he was like out of it because he generally kept himself to himself.

“Having said that, I remember quite vividly the time he took me up in to the Laurentian mountains close to Montreal and we went playing on a couple of Ski-doos. He was bloody quick on those things as well!

“I actually met his father then, which I am not sure many people did. Stephane was re-united with him when he was in his late teens and he saw him every now and again.”

At the season’s end Proulx returned to his homeland under the realisation that Player’s was unlikely to continue its lavish commercial support.

Also on the scene at this stage were a host of other homegrown talents who were looking for a chance to shine; Claude Bourbonnais and David Empringham were among them and they were hungry for an opportunity.

Proulx won a poorly contested Canadian Formula Atlantic series in 1991 and then made some sporadic French F3 appearances in 1992 with a Formula Project Dallara in ’92, but he was soon the forgotten man on the international scene.

When he arrived back in Canada at the end of 1992, Spenard had seen a worrying change in his former protege and he was shocked at what was before him.

“That is when I realised he was really sick,” recalls Spenard. “He contacted me when he had lost Player’s and wanted to get back in to top level competition seriously. He wanted us to build a team and go racing together again. I told him that I did not have time to do that but that if he lined-up some meetings I would go with him to help get sponsorship.

“At one point he called me and said that he had a meeting with Saatchi and Saatchi and he wanted me to come, but it was a total disaster. The meeting was awful; he was lost, just all over the place.

“I came back home and could not believe what had happened, it was embarrassing. I was shocked at what I saw and how he looked.”

A deeply private individual, Proulx appeared to have lived parallel lives, particularly when he was in Europe. The Stephane Proulx at the race track was different to the one away from it. After living in Europe for two years, he had become even more introverted and fiercely protective of his privacy.

“I did know that he was sick but I did not understand his behaviour at that meeting and what exactly was wrong with him,” says Spenard.

“Then Monique called me and told me that he was dying from AIDS. And that is when everything made sense to me.”

During his final year Stephane’s plight became depressingly hopeless. His final appearance was at Phoenix in April, in a Formula Atlantic event where an accident contributed to accelerating his wretched final months in Ste-Adele hospital, where infections on his weakened body took hold.

“The truth eventually came out that he was gay and had contracted HIV,” says Spenard. “It was a shock to me, and it still is today because I was living with Stephane and I did not know anything about his private life and really why should I?

“It was his business after all, but it was still a shock because it was all hidden away from his professional life and even his closest friends. After he passed away, we found out this other side to his life.

“He was only 27. Such a waste of a young life. I have great memories of him and what he achieved despite the difficult start to his life, being raised by a single parent and not really knowing his father and the family having no money. Sadly Monique died just over a year ago too.

“I much prefer to remember the good times we had, like when we were racing together in the Porsche Turbo Cup, we were team-mates, and I remember him beating me once on my home track at Shannonville and we had so much fun.

“We changed the lead about 30 times on a wet racetrack, it was amazing and wild. A lot like Stephane really.”

A knackered Proulx debriefs in the Brands paddock, 1990 – Photo with thanks to Stella-Maria Thomas
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