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Formula One legend enjoys life in the fast lane

SUNDAY DRIVER -

April 30, 2006|By JASON STEIN - Wheelbase Communications

Nearly 15 years ago, before he walked away from a sport he ruled with a lead foot, it was not uncommon for Alain Prost to more than occasionally become cornered in the smallest restaurant in the smallest town in the tiniest corner of a country.

Take, Meribel, for one. It's a ski resort so out of the way in the French hillside, its owners publish an "Easy Way to Get Here" guide on the Web site.

Anonymous? You bet.

Unless you are Alain Prost, perched at the top of the tallest hill, wearing an oversized helmet with oversized goggles and an oversized ski jacket.

"And just as I was about to launch myself downhill," Prost wrote in his book, "Life in the Fast Lane," a perfect stranger next to me tapped me on the shoulder."

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"How are you, Alain?" the stranger said in French.

Prost, the legendary Formula One driver, could only shrug his small shoulders and sigh.

Busted, again.

Even if you don't know much about Formula One, you've heard of the legend. Or at least the nickname.

"Le Professeur," they called him.

To the competition, he was the technician. The Master. The Scientist. And, of course, the champion.

Fifty-one times in 14 seasons of F1 racing, Prost drove away with a race win. He was a Michael Schumacher before there was a Schumacher.

But what you might not know about Alain Prost, the driver, is that Alain Prost, the person, was five times quicker.

Prost is so funny, he could have done stand-up comedy the nights after his victories. Anyone who officially lists sleeping as his hobby must have a sense of humor.

One year, during a press conference after the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, he was demonstrating how he had outbraked a competitor to win the race. In the re-enactment, however, Prost's chair slipped, resulting in a backward tumble. Prost disappeared under the podium for a moment.

His response to the applause of the press?

"OK, so maybe I braked a little too hard."

(Ba-dum-bum.)

On his 5-foot-4 stature?

"Do you know, why I really love my helmet that much?" he once asked journalists. "Because it makes me 15 centimeters taller!"

(Ba-da-boom.)

Or how about driving at high speeds?

"Does it scare me, driving into nothing at 300 kilometers per hour? Of course it does. I'm not an idiot...," he once said.

Or there was the night in 1986 when he was driving home through the French countryside only to be caught in a radar trap doing well in excess of the speed limit.

"The policeman looked me up and down disdainfully before asking: 'Who do you think you are - Alain Prost?'"

Born Alain Marie Pascal Prost in France on February 24, 1955 to Andre and Marie-Rose, an artist and a furniture dealer, respectively, the humor was in his blood.

One time early in his racing career, Prost was driving the family car when his mother insisted he pull over and change places with her.

"How bad you drive!" she snapped.

Oh, the irony.

Prost always had a knack for quickness, but on the soccer field first. Truth be told, if he hadn't begun go-karting at 18 (considered a late bloomer by today's standards), he might have been a World Cup threat for France.

But his first year in go-karts he won the French Junior Karting Championship, then kept winning . . . and winning. Racing seemed like an obvious career choice.

He began in 1976 in Formula Renault and quickly ascended through the ranks.

Within just four years he was driving in Formula One and, five years later, he was a world champion. Pros developed a reputation as a "technician" in the car in that he seldom, if ever, made a mistake.

At an F1 test early in his career, journalist Nigel Roebuck recalled talking with American driver Eddie Cheever, who was looking out over the track. "I don't believe it!" Cheever said to Roebuck. "Prost just spun!"

Cheever was silent for a few seconds.

"Oh (well), he'll probably do it again in another three or four years...."

Three more titles followed for Prost - in 1986, '89 and '93 - as he rolled up an impeccable driving record. In 199 F1 starts, he won 51 times, a record that he held until Michael Schumacher upped the bar in 2001. An amazing 121 times he finished in the top five.

After winning his final world title in 1993, he said he had had enough.

He became a commentator for French TV, a technical advisor and bought a Formula One team. Life became a little more normal for his family and he even began competing in bicycle and ice races.

These days he spends time watching his son, Nicolas, race in the Spanish Formula Three series.

The speed might be gone, but the humor is as quick as ever.

During an ice race in France, Prost collided with another car, virtually destroying his own. In an interview with French TV, Prost said, "It's a typical beginner's mistake but I'm still young and learning."

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at: www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

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