Sunset Speedway in Innisfil held a memorial service last weekend in honour of 23-year-old race-car driver Melissa Bullen, who died in May 2020 after a battle with mental health issues.
A moment of silence was observed on the track Saturday evening by family members, friends, and fellow race-car drivers as Sunset Speedway held a solemn ceremony to remember the young racer’s life and achievements.
Following in the footsteps of her grandfather Fred, her father Phil, and her brothers Branden and Josh, Melissa was an avid stock-car driver who was “coming into her own” as a racer the last few years.
Growing up in Bond Head, she attended Bradford District High School, graduating with honours, and went on to study at Georgian College and eventually Canadian Career College, graduating again with honours in early childhood education (ECE) and later receiving a diploma for medical secretary work.
Melissa enjoyed playing soccer and used to play for the Bradford Eagles. She became involved with stock-car racing at an early age alongside her family.
She began competing in stock-car racing in 2005, participating in the mini stock division under the racing number 67 – the same number her father and grandfather raced under.
In 2014, Melissa quit playing soccer due to a knee injury and decided to focus on racing cars, having already won multiple races and podium finishes.
“She became a hell of a lot better driver,” says Phil. “She was one of the top female racers.”
Phil says his daughter, whom he called Mel, suffered for years from mental health issues and had received ongoing treatment and care through Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH) in Barrie.
“We thought she was OK,” he says. “Then all of a sudden something changed.”
Phil recalls the months leading up to his daughter’s death seemed normal and Mel appeared “perfect.” The family had just returned from a trip to Florida in November 2019 and were in the midst of house shopping in Innisfil, where the Bullens now reside.
“We really only noticed something was wrong the day before,” Phil says. “It’s tough because you don’t know. You think they’re doing well, and if they’re not, they won’t tell you.”
Mel is remembered as a “great girl” who had lots of friends, and loved babies.
“She was always out playing. She was a good kid,” says Phil.
The Bullen family was unable to have a public memorial last year due to COVID-19 restrictions, and Sunset Speedway was closed for all of 2020 due to the pandemic.
In memory of Melissa Bullen, Sunset Speedway owners Sandra and Brian Todish presented the Bullen family with a banner of her racing under the number 67, signed by fellow race-car drivers, friends and track staff. A second banner will be kept on display at Sunset Speedway “forever and ever.”
“We want to share our condolences to the Bullen family,” Brian Todish said. “We wanted to do something special. … Thank you for being a part of our lives!”
Local race-car group Ladies of the Oval also created a logo sticker with Melissa’s name and racing number, which was placed on all the race cars at Sunset Speedway in her honour. The group also had the memorial decal transferred onto sweaters and T-shirts for sale with the proceeds being donated to RVH and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).
A new award was created in honour of the late driver, dubbed the Melissa Bullen Most Improved Female Driver Award, which is open to any females racing on asphalt in Ontario. It includes a trophy and $500 cash prize.
On Saturday evening, Melissa’s brother Branden drove her car around the track as the pace setter before a few of the races began, giving the “one (wo)man missing salute” as he drove around the track. Her other brother, Josh, raced in several heats during the course of the evening, winning one race.
Melissa’s race car was parked in the middle of the track with her helmet resting on top of the car for the remainder of the evening.
Sunset Speedway will be open to the public in Stage 2 and visitors will be able to view Melissa’s banner at the track.