Volume 29 - Number 16 - Thursday, May 8, 1997

A dream (finally) comes true

by Alison Ramsey
A battle-weary Mike McHugh shows his proposed design for a stamp honouring Gilles Villeneuve. Canada Post will be issuing a stamp--of its own design--next month


Though it's unlikely ever to be proven beyond doubt, McGill lab technician Mike McHugh is certain in his mind that he is responsible for a Canada Post stamp commemorating Gilles Villeneuve being released during this year's Montreal Grand Prix.

McHugh has spent 13 years lobbying for a stamp honouring Villeneuve, whom he met before Ferrari ever heard of the Berthierville farm boy turned race car driver.

Within days of coming to work at McGill after having graduated with a mathematics degree from the University of Western Ontario, McHugh knocked on the door of an Atlantic circuit driver, Reg Scullion, who operated from a garage in a Montreal suburb. He offered to be a gofer just to be near the machines he loved. The driver agreed.

That year, 1974, he worked all day at McGill and every night on race cars. On weekends he attended races, watching from the pits. He listened to drivers talk about how Villeneuve was green and didn't have the best equipment, but that he was fast. McHugh had found a hero.

"Each lap was fought for so tenaciously," says McHugh. "In any discipline you measure yourself against those who are the best. Formula One is so demanding, and the other drivers said Villeneuve was the standard to measure themselves against."

In 1976 Villeneuve had lots of successes. Early in the racing season, an excited McHugh phoned the managing editor of Maclean's magazine and pitched a story about his idol. He was turned down. Villeneuve, meanwhile, continued to rack up wins, so McHugh kept on calling the editor.

When Villeneuve set the fastest lap time and surpassed leading European Formula One driver James Hunt in a Trois-Rivières race, Maclean's finally agreed to run McHugh's story.

He watched, impressed, as Villeneuve evolved from a driver living on a shoestring to Ferrari's number one man. "He surmounted enormous financial obstacles and eventually became almost an ambassor for Canada in Italy," says McHugh.

He admired the way Villeneuve kept his family with him while pursuing his dream. And, following a horrible crash, he'd get out of the wreck, dust himself off and take off in another car.

"Fearless," says McHugh, "didn't describe it."

Simultaneously, McHugh the lab worker and Montreal Neurological Institute researcher was becoming intrigued with how the brain controls fear. When he could, he talked with Villeneuve to gain insights into how the driver overcame his limits.

Suddenly, in 1982, Villeneuve sustained a fatal crash and McHugh's passion for racing died too. "It was like a bomb going off, and all the emotion was gone," says McHugh.

But it was soon replaced by a strong desire to see Villeneuve honoured in Canada by having his likeness on a stamp.

"What I like about a stamp is that it goes everywhere," says McHugh. He called Canada Post with his idea and was turned down flat. That prodded his mulish tendencies, and he began a slow, steady campaign to see the stamp realized.

He started by coming up with a design for a stamp and contacting the media. His first big break came in July 1988, when Road & Track magazine published McHugh's design and a brief story. Around the same time, McHugh created a small flurry of interest by printing up 500 posters depicting his stamp, which he handed out free at street corners during the Montreal Grand Prix. That endeavour got him on the CBC.

"It was like sowing seeds in the wind," said McHugh. "I was hoping that one would catch."

Finally, he ran out of steam. For a full year he did nothing, but then his unflagging admiration for Villeneuve overcame his ennui.

"He was one of the finest people we've produced," says McHugh. "He had oodles of courage and he was the best of his profession. He brought joy to my life. I really wanted to celebrate his life."

One day last year he saw Allan de la Plante, the photographer whose image McHugh had used in his design and, to his astonishment, de la Plante said he had recently seen the mock-up of a Villeneuve stamp.

It was confirmed when McHugh saw a news story about the stamp. In it, Canada Post said the stamp was made because the corporation received hundreds of recommendations each year asking for it. McHugh is sure the requests are largely due to his efforts.

"I had been trying to hit the target," McHugh grinned, "and I got a bull's-eye!"

He isn't thrilled, however, with the image Canada Post used of Villeneuve racing in his car. The driver isn't visible through the helmet. "It's like a celebration of the car," McHugh grumbles, "not the man."

Still, the goal is accomplished and McHugh is on to the next thing."Gilles wanted to set up a safety program for young drivers, and with today's technology a simulator can be made so young people can get experience before going on the road," he says. "With help, I'm going to try and get that done."

There's little doubt that he'll succeed.

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