Justin Wilson – a great racer, father and man to the end

Justin Wilson in 2002
Justin Wilson in 2002

As you surely know, Verizon IndyCar Series driver Justin Wilson passed away Monday evening after succumbing to injuries sustained in a crash during Sunday’s ABC Supply Co. 500 at Pocono Raceway.

The pilot of the #25 Andretti Autosport Honda had qualified seventh and spent much of the day running near the front of the field. A lap 144 pit road speed limit violation moved him outside the top-10, and he was running 13th on lap 179 when rookie leader Sage Karam spun and hit the wall exiting turn 1. Although we don't yet know the specific metrics of the impact, debris from Karam's car bounced onto the track before, gruesomely, striking an oncoming and still at speed Wilson in the helmet. Shortly thereafter Wilson’s car collided with the inside retaining and came to a rest. Everyone reasonably feared the worst.

Wilson was airlifted to Lehigh Valley Health Network Cedar Crest Hospital in Allentown, Pa. and would pass away Monday. Wilson is survived by his wife Julia and two daughters Jayne Louise, 7, and Jessica Lynne, 5.

Wilson's death already has and will continue to prompt conversation regarding race safety, in particular measures to protect the drivers’ heads. Clearly, there are hard questions to be asked, and there will at some point, be a time and place for that exercise. Today, however, AutoRacing1 will pay tribute to an incredibly talented, gracious and dignified Wilson; the racer, the father, the husband; the man taken from us much too soon.


Let me begin by saying that as someone who has written such pieces before, I find Wilson incredibly difficult to properly pay tribute. That’s a compliment mind you (keep reading). However, a method often employed in such instances is to weave a narrative of growth or coming of age of the fallen. For Wilson, that’s somewhat difficult, as he never had to ‘grow up’ per se. He seemed the exact same person at 27 as he was Sunday when strapped into car at 37. Wilson, for example, was not somewhat accident prone or disrespected by his peers at a young or advanced age. He was to my knowledge always admired for his talents behind the wheel, and gentlemanly behavior on and off the track.

Another common occurrence with such these pieces is to humanize the individual who has passed. One method often used is to reveal their human frailties. Wilson I’m sure was not perfect personally or professionally, but there is no “well, Justin could be a bit of an insert not so complimentary term here."

Also, being somewhat new to the beat, I’m not going to sit here and pretend I knew Wilson well. I did however get the opportunity to spend some extended time with him, and I will share that most extended time with him.

Fontana 2014

Wilson in 2006
Wilson in 2006

It was around this time last year I was at Auto Club Speedway for the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series finale. I had gotten word a few hours before the start of the MAVTV 500 that Wilson, who I thought to be under contract for 2015, might be departing Dale Coyne Racing at the end of 2014.

I sent an email to DCR P.R. man Trevor Moore, asking if there was a time I could meet with Coyne. Moore told me to come by the trailer in about a half hour. My plan was to ask Coyne about Wilson (why I actually thought Coyne might tell me something about his driver lineup seven months before the season started is perhaps a fair question unto itself, but a different topic for a different time). When I arrived Moore invited me in and I was immediately thrown a curve ball, as the questions I planned to ask Coyne about one of his drivers did not take into account that driver being present.

In the DCR Hauler

“Justin, you know Brian from AR1 right?" or something to the effect, said Coyne. Wilson, who was polishing his helmet in preparation for that evening’s race, nodded, smiled and said “how are you?" and we shook hands.

With my entire plan now thrown off, I scrambled quickly to say something that might somehow validate my presence. I can’t remember what exactly I asked, although I can’t imagine it made Wilson and Coyne think “this one is sure on the ball."

From there, however, the discussion quickly turned conversational. At some point, I put the notepad away and stopped pretending it was some sort of journalistically formal Q & A session. And a big reason for that was, Wilson.

As he continued to polish away at the helmet, the conversation moved from subject-to-subject with Wilson chiming in. As the Sheffield, England native continued to talk, I quickly forgot the whole reason I was there in the first place. It ended up being 10-15 minutes of basically a very friendly, insightful chat, in which Wilson elaborated on subjects such as

  • Why Mike Conway, who Wilson teamed with at both Dreyer and Reinbold and DCR, is so good on street courses
  • what made the track surface at Auto Club Speedway so unique.
  • how aero kits were going to affect the racing

Upon leaving, I asked Wilson if I could quote him on one item, and he said no problem.

Winning at Watkins Glen in 2010 for Dale Coyne
Winning at Watkins Glen in 2009 for Dale Coyne

Now, in all honesty nothing that occurred in that trailer during those 10-15 minutes will add anything terribly new or insightful to what has already been said about Wilson. Like you, I have spent the last 72 hours reading and listening to the many tributes paid to Wilson, many of them very moving. And I imagine my exchange with him is something thousands of others can share as a similar testament to the characteristically understated grace and charm Wilson possessed.

What I will say is that I came away from the Dale Coyne Racing hauler that day not so much surprised that Wilson was those things, rather the ease in which it seemed to come to him. In a completely impromptu setting, Wilson didn’t have to put on airs to be charming. You didn’t feel he was trying to be overly emotive to make you welcome. He was insightful without being long-winded. Continuing to polish away at his helmet, and share his insights, Wilson seemed to possess an innate ease and calm. It seemed easy for him to be at ease. He was calm about being calm, if you will.

No, I didn’t get much of a story that day, but I left the DCR hauler happy then, and even more so now, I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with Wilson.

However, because I didn’t get the story, I did wonder where Wilson’s career might be headed after Fontana.

The Racer

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]Wilson’s career will forever be something of a puzzle for a variety of reasons. Granted, seven career wins and his consistent performance are very noteworthy. Further, Wilson has long been well-regarded as a driver capable of being a regular winner and champion if he could ever land a ride with a big team. While he spent some time with the very competitive RuSPORT back in the Champ Car days, in IndyCar that seat with a big team didn’t emerge until recently. Still, Wilson’s career will likely be remembered for what could have been albeit not necessarily through his own shortcomings rather than what actually was.

That’s not a criticism mind you. With Wilson the question was never whether he was fulfilling potential, rather whether he was given the proper tools to fulfill that potential. After all, you’d be hard-pressed to find an instance in which Wilson did not maximize his ability or outperform a driver he replaced or teammate. Also, in the case of DCR, the team has competed for 32 seasons, and Wilson was the driver for half the team’s race wins.

It’s just general knowledge he didn’t necessarily have the tools some of his contemporaries did, and we’ll always wonder what would have happened if he had.

For example, what may have happened if there had been no eleventh hour merger and Wilson been able to run the 2008 Champ Car schedule with then four-time reigning champion Newman/Haas/Lanigan? What may have happened had Wilson landed the Team Penske ride in 2009 that went to Will Power? Clearly, time has shown Power to be a solid selection, but at the time an argument could have easily been made that Wilson was a more-qualified candidate than Power. What may have happened if Wilson was able to establish some footing at Andretti?

We do know he was fully intent on making the Andretti situation work.

“I talked to him at St. Pete and all he wanted was to drive for Andretti," says AR1’s Lucille Dust. “He was so excited about the opportunity and worked so hard to make it come about. Here it finally happens and this. It’s just so awful. I can’t stop thinking about Julia and the girls."

The resiliency which Wilson showed in landing at Andretti and then his opportunity being cut short will forever leave unanswered questions about what could have been; and perhaps is symbolic of a career that while noteworthy, simply never had the breaks commensurate with his talent.

In Hindsight

Winning Texas in 2012 for Dale Coyne
Winning Texas in 2012 for Dale Coyne

Over the last few days, I’ve wondered whether Wilson’s unassuming nature actually hurt him from a career standpoint. His numerous strengths previously discussed, self-promotion certainly didn’t come naturally to Wilson. Nor was he one to ever give you the ‘woe-is-me’ routine. He took what he had, got the most out of it, and let the results speak for themselves, because well, that was the kind of person and racer he was. But from a racing perspective I will forever wonder whether Wilson’s immense personal gifts were career liabilities.

We’ll never know.

What we do know is Wilson was one of the classiest, kindest and warmest people to ever strap into an Indy car. We know that not one person would have had a negative word to say about him before the green flag Sunday. We know that he brought a charm and grace in absolutely everything he did, whether it was driving a race car his charitable work raising money and awareness for dyslexia (Wilson was dyslexic), or even in death, as it was revealed Wilson’s organs will be used to save 6 lives.

Certainly, we will always wonder what might have been with Wilson and Andretti. But all-in-all it was a life well-lived; a life that touched so, so many.

With that acknowledgement I hope those of us who were blessed enough to spend even a moment with him can find some degree of solace and that the immensely classy, gracious, dignified and talented, Justin Wilson may rest in peace.

Brian Carroccio is a senior motorsports columnist for AutoRacing1. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com

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