Stefan Wilson: ‘I want to honor Justin and do him proud at Indy’

Stefan Wilson needs more money to buy a ride in the Indy 500
Stefan Wilson needs more money to buy a ride in the Indy 500

Stefan Wilson moved from England to Indianapolis with his wife, Katie, to chase a dream: to compete for the first time this May in the famous 500-mile race on the northwest edge of the city.

To race in the 100th Indianapolis 500 would be thrilling enough, but Wilson is also pushed by the memory of another IndyCar driver — Justin Wilson, his older brother, who died in an accident during a race last August.

"I want to honor him, and do him proud at Indy," Stefan Wilson tells the Guardian. Justin Wilson was only three weeks past his 37th birthday when he was hit in the head by debris from another car. Wilson, well-liked by fellow competitors, died of his injuries the next day, leaving a wife, Julia, and two daughters.

Other than what Justin once called a "five-minute go-kart race," the brothers raced each other just once, at the 2013 Baltimore Grand Prix, through city streets. Justin finished fourth, Stefan 18th. There should have been many more races between the brothers, but that would be it.

While Justin Wilson drove in the IndyCar Series for two more seasons, Stefan scrambled in vain to scratch up enough corporate sponsorship to fund a ride, let alone a competitive car. But Stefan Wilson won't quit.

Besides this being the 100th Indy 500, Wilson says, "I didn't want to end my career without racing at Indy." He has driven in 81 open-wheel races in the last 10 years, winning 10 and finishing in second or third place another 11 times, but the Indy 500 is different.

Racing runs in the family. His father, Keith, was a formidable Formula Ford racer in England before a crash ended his career in 1975. Justin won seven IndyCar races and drove in eight Indy 500s, finishing fifth in the 2013 race.

Stefan Wilson was in Indianapolis earlier this month when Juan Pablo Montoya won the opener of the 16-race season Sunday in St Petersburg, Florida. But Wilson announced in late February that he had formed a unique partnership with SolarAid, which will help offset his racing carbon footprint through a social community, called the Speed of Light, that provides solar energy to communities without access to electricity.

He said he has meetings scheduled with companies that may be interested in funding his drive for the Indy 500, if not more races, and he said several "good" race teams, which he won't name, are interested in putting Wilson in a car if he can raise enough money.

Justin Wilson knew all about that, bouncing from ride to ride. After driving in Formula One in 2003 and finishing eighth in the US Grand Prix, Wilson drove for two teams in four years in the now-defunct Champ Car Series, a rival of the Indy Racing League. He then drove for three teams in eight seasons in the IndyCar Series.

Stefan Wilson raced go-karts as a youngster before moving up to the Formula Palmer Audi and British Formula Three series, then driving in 32 races over four years in the Firestone Indy Lights series, just one level below the IndyCar Series.

His last race in the Indy Lights Series was in 2012 for a team called Fan Force United, which aspired to move up to the big time. In June 2014, Fan Force United announced that Justin Wilson would be its driver for a full-time IndyCar Series run in 2015.

"[The sponsorship funding] all sort of fell through," Stefan Wilson says. He says of raising money, "It's part of the job which doesn't get a lot of light on it."

Stefan had enjoyed racing against his brother in Baltimore. Justin started fourth that day, with Stefan starting 21st in the 25-car field, but, as team-mates for Dale Coyne Racing, Justin shared data with his younger brother during practice runs. It was the first time two brothers had started in an IndyCar race as team-mates since Gary and Tony Bettenhausen did so in 1983.

"It was amazing to work next to him," he says. "He was so, so talented."

Justin Wilson had scuffled for work last year, too, He drove in only six races for the team owned by Michael Andretti, a champion driver who is the son of the legendary Mario Andretti, finishing 24th in what would be his last Indy 500.

Because auto racing is so expensive, most (but not all) rides tend to be taken by kids from wealthy families or kids from famous racing families, the Andrettis being one example.

"With me and Justin, we didn't have rich friends or rich families," Stefan Wilson says. "We're solely trying to do it on talent, and find [the money] ourselves. It's not a struggle, but it's definitely harder for us."

Justin Wilson's death was the first in IndyCar racing since 2011, when Dan Wheldon, a popular and congenial 33-year-old British driver who won the Indy 500 twice, was killed during a season-ending race in Las Vegas. Sir Jackie Stewart was among those who attended Justin Wilson's s funeral in September in Northamptonshire.

A day after Wilson died, Stefan announced that six people had received his brother's organs. That weekend, Stefan attended the final race of the 2015 IndyCar series, in Sonoma, California. Oriol Servia drove Justin Wilson's No25 car in the race.

"It was actually almost a bit therapeutic," Stefan Wilson says. "I know that sounds crazy, but it was good being back in the environment that Justin and I love."

Stefan Wilson has not piloted an open-wheel racer around the track since then, but he has firm plans to do so for the first time in May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He is planning to use a solar-powered pit box. Some things in this sport can, and do, change.

"It's not what you'd expect to hear from a race-car driver racing around in circles using fossil fuels," Wilson says. Dave Caldwell/The Guardian

Leave a Reply