Bruno also needed lots of sacrifice – and money – from his parents, who footed most of the bill for their son’s racing until he signed as a DTM driver with Mercedes in 2005.
One thing that’s never far from Alexis Spengler’s thoughts is “the accident.”
After dominating the 2002 Fran-Am 2000 North American Pro Championship, scoring six wins in eight races, Spengler inked a deal to join the Mercedes-Benz Junior Team that had produced several successful Formula One drivers, including seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher.
The 18-year-old packed his bags for Europe where he would test his mettle against some of the planet’s best open-wheel talent in the Formula Three Euroseries. A month before the season was set to begin, he arrived at a test session at the Dijon-Prenois Circuit in France ready to show the world why he was Canada’s next F1 star in waiting.
Then, going through a high-speed corner on the undulating French circuit, Spengler’s car snapped away from him like a bucking bronco, sending him violently into the barriers lining the outside of the circuit. When the dust cleared, Spengler immediately knew something wasn’t right – the excruciating pain burning through his lower back would be later diagnosed as a fractured L-1 vertebrae.
“I was very worried. By the time I got to the hospital, I was sure that my career was, maybe, over,” he recalls.
Clearly oblivious to the proper procedures for extricating a driver from a car, the track’s makeshift safety crew couldn’t figure out how to get the injured driver out of the cockpit. In the end, Spengler gingerly pulled himself out of the car and got into a waiting ambulance.
Alexis arrived at the scene moments after the crash and his blood still boils as he describes what he saw. “It was a very dangerous situation; he came very close to being paralyzed,” he snaps. “It was very difficult to watch.”
Once Bruno arrived at the local hospital, fear turned to relief when he learned the fracture would not require surgery. Although the doctors felt he could resume racing in about six months, it was still devastating news. He knew that in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of racing, being away from the track that long was a potential death knell for his just budding career.
The next day, Spengler got the phone call he knew would come from Mercedes Motorsport boss Norbert Haug. Much to Spengler’s surprise, Haug’s call didn’t deliver the message he dreaded.
“I was sure somebody was going to step into my car because I wasn’t there,” Spengler says. “But Norbert called me at the hospital and he said: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll keep your seat and, as soon as you’re fit, you can come back.’ This helped me a lot.”
Spengler called Haug’s gesture “the best thing that happened to me in my career.”
A couple of days later, Haug sent a medical plane to pick up the injured driver and take him back to his European home in Strasbourg, France. Buoyed by Haug’s guarantee, the six-month layoff shrank to three, and Spengler was back on track well ahead of schedule.
Although their son was determined to get back to racing, Spengler’s parents found themselves balking at the idea after the accident. Alexis Spengler’s voice softens as he talks about seeing his son lying in the French hospital bed and fighting his gut reaction to order Bruno to stop racing.
“The first thing I said to him after he was okay was: ‘You have to think about this and make sure this is what you want to do.’ I think we hoped he would say to himself, ‘I don’t want to do that any more,’ but he never thought anything like that.”
Ironically, when Bruno began karting as a 10-year-old boy, his parents always thought he would stop after a couple of years and do something else. Instead, he always drove well and continued up the ladder. They went year by year and step by step, scraping together enough money to keep him on track.
“It was difficult at first because of the danger,” Alexis says. “The type of karting was very fast and it was expensive and we always had to look for money and sponsors or pay ourselves. But it was a pleasure.”
Soon enough, Bruno was racing in Europe against some of the best karters in the world – and winning.