04 Nov Alan Labrosse’s motorsports career full of risks and rewards
Alan Labrosse’s career in motorsports can be compared to both a book and a stock portfolio, with chapters ranging from driver to manager to track owner and a risk tolerance that would be the envy of any investor.
Labrosse first got involved in motorsports when a motorcycle mechanic saw him riding on the streets and suggested that he check out a motorcycle road race.
He attended his first race in summer 1978 and was “infected from the get go,” making his debut in the rain at Shannonville Motorsport Park in spring 1979, where he finished sixth out of a field of roughly 40 to 50 drivers. He went on to win multiple national championships in his first few years, across the 125cc, 250cc and 500cc categories.
When reflecting on his early success, he says the words that come to mind are “intensive, aggressive and obsessive” and that success has a lot to do with mindset in life.
In 1981, Labrosse caught the eye of Gilles Villeneuve, the Canadian Formula 1 star who was from the same region in Quebec. Villeneuve heard about Labrosse racing bikes and his ambitions to race MotoGP at the world championship level and decided that he would try to help through his manager, Gaston Parent.
Labrosse spent time with Villeneuve at the Grand Prix of Canada in September 1981 and met again at the Grand Prix of Long Beach in April 1982, where Labrosse was entered in a support race. Villeneuve approached him before that race and asked if he could help in any way.
Labrosse, who had made the long trip to California with his family in a minivan, mentioned the cost of tires, so Villeneuve put the tires on his bill.
Labrosse’s connection with Villeneuve looked like it was going to help launch his motorcycle racing career in Europe, but just weeks later, Villeneuve died following a qualifying crash in Belgium. Parent no longer had interests in racing after Villeneuve’s death and was unable to help Labrosse’s career.
Following further success on two wheels in North America, Labrosse made the jump to four-wheel competition in 1986, driving for a Formula 2000 race team that was owned by his sponsor. He raced in the Canadian series, alongside notable names such as Paul Tracy and Labrosse’s teammate Richard Spenard.
While the risk of injury remained, the level of fear was a noticeable difference in making the switch from motorcycles to cars.
“The first thought that comes to mind is no fear,” said Labrosse. “I was getting off a 500cc GP bike, which was wicked fast, wicked dangerous, a recipe for broken bones. Then I was hopping into what I thought was a tank. …I was clocked on my (Honda) RS 500 (motorcycle) at 188 mph, so getting into a F2000 that maybe went 130 mph, things felt slower.”
Labrosse finished runner-up that season in the Canadian F2000 series, before competing in a British F2000 series that fall, where he was racing against future Formula 1 drivers. When he returned from England, his sponsor Raymond David, who owned Shannonville at the time, highly suggested that Labrosse take the role of looking after his businesses and managing Shannonville.
David was also a sponsor and mentor to Bertrand Fabi, a Canadian driver who was planning a move to Formula 3 when he died following a crash at a private test session in February 1986. His death had a big impact on David.
Labrosse was anticipating a move to Formula 3 in 1987, but with Fabi’s death, plans changed from a professional motorsport racing career to a professional motorsport management career.
“Twice it happened,” said Labrosse. “It’s pretty weird that one of Canada’s up-and-coming, Bertrand Fabi, and one of Canada’s already legendary Formula 1 drivers, they both passed away and had an effect on the direction of my career.”
While it was a 180-degree change in career trajectory, he was all fine with the pivot in the long run.
“It was a short period of disappointment (followed by) a much longer, prosperous, period of learning and enjoying the world of motorsports, but from a management or ownership position,” he said.
Labrosse held various roles in the decades that followed, most notably as a manager to some of Canada’s most famous racers, including Miguel Duhamel, Patrick Carpentier and Andrew Ranger.
He was Ranger’s manager when the driver won the inaugural NASCAR Pinty’s Series championship in 2007 and was Carpentier’s manager when he won his first CART race at Michigan International Speedway in 2001.
Labrosse recalls many memorable moments, such as Carpentier running around the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course wearing nothing but a checkered flag on the day after his CART win in 2002. But there were also challenging times, such as having to order a private jet to take Duhamel from Georgia to California for surgery on a broken femur (thighbone).
While there was less danger in a role away from the driver’s seat, there was still a level of risk involved in being a manager. One such risk came in 1999, when Labrosse was part of Duhamel’s decision to compete at Daytona International Speedway, despite Duhamel still recovering from one of the three broken femurs in his career. Duhamel ended up winning that race.
“I’ve been gambling a long time,” said Labrosse. “In the case of Miguel racing the Daytona 200, there was a lot of risk. It turned out to be a fairy tale story and we’re very lucky.”
Labrosse’s experience as a racer gave him a more aggressive mindset in his role of manager. He breaks down his mindset to being 80 per cent racer, 20 per cent managerial early on, but believes the percentage shifted with time as he started thinking more about a driver’s post-career, making it more of a 60-40 split.
“Racer, gambler, aggressive, I’m still that way today,” he said. “Not aggressive, as in, not enjoyable, but just aggressive with risk taking. When I compare myself with all of my friends, none of them have the risk tolerance that I do.”
That risk tolerance was on full display in a recent chapter of his career. In 2004 and 2006, Labrosse was the promoter of the Molson Indy/Molson Grand Prix race weekend at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. That included a CASCAR Super Series race in 2006, which was the first time that those types of stock cars raced on that track.
With NASCAR looking for a new Quebec venue for 2008 and that connection with Labrosse from 2006, when NASCAR was in the process of taking over CASCAR, the sanctioning body decided that they’d hold a race at the Autodrome St-Eustache short track if Labrosse was the promoter.
In October 2007, Labrosse went with his son to rent the track and left that meeting having agreed to buy the place. Changing the perception and quality of events at the track, while improving its financial situation, was a lot of work, but Labrosse and his sons took pride in making the place as nice and enjoyable as possible, while keeping tickets at a modest price.
The track meant a lot to Labrosse, who would even spend 12 hours a week cutting the grass himself. That connection to the facility made it an emotional day when he accepted the city of Saint-Eustache’s offer to buy the land in April 2018.
“I knew that the day that I was accepting to sell (Autodrome St-Eustache) to the city was the beginning of the end,” he said. “I left my office at the track and I drove home and I had difficulty driving home because I was crying most of the time.”
Under the conditional offer, he told the city that they’d continue to operate for two more years, largely out of respect for employees and the motorsport community. The track shuttered at the end of the 2019 season.
“The advantage of St-Eustache (was that) it was within 25 minutes driving time of a population in the whereabouts of three to four million people,” said Labrosse. “At the same time, that’s what its disadvantage was, because the neighbourhoods had creeped in on us…being so close is what kicked us out.”
Similar to the events that changed his career path, this sad moment in his life could be another unexpected turn that worked out in his favour.
Labrosse says that the track probably would’ve gone “belly up” because of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the revenues of race tracks, which already struggle with lesser revenues during the winter and have now been forced to stay closed for an extended period of time.
“I am lucky and my long-time friends, friends for the past 45 years, they all say that I’m a very lucky individual and that luck is across the board,” said Labrosse, when reflecting on his life and career in general. “It was work, but it was so much passion and pleasure that it never felt like work.”
Labrosse was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame in the class of 2007, which he calls “icing on the cake.”
That recognition was an acknowledgment of his contributions to motorsport, his various successes that came as the result of taking risks that worked out.
“I would not change a thing, nothing at all,” he said. “My tolerance for risk is beyond the majority of people, but it could have cost me too. Some of the investment gambling was scary for most; for me, scary, but no more than 12 hours of the day. It did not affect my good night sleep.”
While the saying ‘no risk, no reward’ is a cliché, it’s also the perfect way to sum up Labrosse’s life – a high level of risk-taking that turned into a long and illustrious career in motorsports.
- By Bryce Turner