Justin Wilson, the seven-time IndyCar race winner who perished in a freak accident at Pocono Raceway two years ago today, was a truly beloved member of the racing community. David Malsher tries to explain why.
Every IndyCar fan, it seems, has fine memories of Justin Wilson. Those memories may involve his efforts to drag a midfield car to a top-five finish, or a top-five car to a podium finish or even victory lane. They may involve listening to and watching him on TV play down his achievements in an interview and explain in very measured terms how he’d accomplished things that we all knew were magic and proved he was among the IndyCar elite. Or they may involve encountering him in the paddock or at an autograph session where his humility was such that he came across as the one who felt honored that someone wanted to meet him.
Quiet, polite, humble, eloquent, Justin was also possessed of a dry wit mixed with his generally content demeanor. His masterful ability to understate drama or just accept people for who they are meant he was usually unruffled, easily able to rise above the gossipy nonsense that can permeate a racing paddock when too many people know too much and have hung together for too long. For Justin, his life priorities were doing the best job he could for his team and sponsors, being the best husband for Julia, the best father for Jane and Jessica, the caring and helpful brother to Stefan and the honorable son to Keith and Lynne.
I believe everyone has a dark side, but as someone who knew Justin fairly well, I think he may have been an exception. Sure, he’d express negative opinions but he’d never rant, instead using those quiet Yorkshire tones to deliver his few indictments. He’d inform me that X “doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing,” that Y was “so annoying I had to walk out,” or that Z was “just a really, really bad person. Like, he has no morals.” While I always try to form opinions of people from my own experiences with them, I confess that last comment – coming from Justin Wilson, of all people – colored my view of Z forever. How repellent must one be to elicit that kind of verdict from motorsport’s closest thing to a paragon of human virtue?
And then there was Justin’s sense of perspective about racing. After one event where a definite podium finish and possible win had been lost when one of his most respected rivals had run into him, I was interviewing the culprit in the paddock. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Wilson’s characteristic – almost noble – straight-backed stride. We exchanged glances, he spotted who I was with, he shook his head and mouthed a rude word, then kept walking… but now head-down, trying to hide a mischievous grin as he witnessed my attempt to keep a straight face for my interviewee.
That equanimity was needed all-too frequently in his Indy car career. God knows, we’d have all understood had Justin been a less pleasant and more bitter character, given the number of times even his modest ambitions were thwarted. Bear in mind that Indy car champions that were contemporaries of his, such as Paul Tracy, Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Will Power, Sebastien Bourdais, Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay all knew and readily stated that were Wilson to ever finally fold his 6ft4in frame into a Penske or Ganassi car, he’d be a regular winner and a contender for championships. Notably, too, they said that not just in tribute following his death, but while he was still walking amongst us. It became a doleful and wistful paddock talking point that he was regularly overlooked by the few people who could have had a positive effect on his career.
So if frustration at the way his fortunes turned, stalled, turned again, stalled again, had ground away at Justin’s veneer of niceness to reveal a tormented or resentful soul, most would have understood. But it wasn’t just a veneer, that’s the point; he was a nice guy to the core.
Near the start of 2015, before the part-time deal with Andretti Autosport was announced, I asked Wilson why he spent so many winters without a guaranteed ride for the following year, despite clearly being one of the best. (He almost cringed with embarrassment if paid even a casual compliment, but there was no other way to frame the question.) His reply wasn’t one riddled with self-pity, but instead the rational thoughts of a grown-up – a man who behaved like a grown-up since his teens, by the way.
“I’ve spent too many off-seasons trying to find a new team or watching whichever team I’m with letting go of the good staff,” he said. “It’s always back to square one. The really successful drivers and teams have continuity, whereas in my career someone keeps hitting the reset button… and sometimes it’s me, out of choice! I’m not blaming anyone in particular. That’s the way it is.”
He shrugged. “But you know, maybe I’m stupid; there are a lot of drivers in my situation in open-wheel, and the smart ones eventually give up and go to sportscars. And the really smart ones switch early when they’re still young and get themselves good manufacturer deals in prototypes or GTs, like Olly Gavin or Tom Kristensen.”
Some 18 months earlier, Wilson had told me he’d given himself a vague deadline of 40 years old as the time when he’d stop chasing IndyCar deals, and now I wondered aloud if he’d brought that deadline forward. IMSA was an obvious alternative route to pursue, and Michael Shank – for whom he’d won the 50th Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona in 2012 – would have moved heaven and earth to sign him fulltime for his sportscar team. However, Justin (correctly) felt his driving was still good enough to shine in open-wheel racing, his foremost passion.
“That’s always been my target,” he remarked. “I grew up loving Formula 1, watching Mansell and Prost and Berger and Senna. I was pleased I started a few grands prix, pissed when it fell through, but when I started looking at chances here in the U.S., I just realized that’s where I should be. I don’t think I’d have dealt well with all the political bullshit in F1. I’ve always wanted to put my effort into driving and helping a team to move forward, not stabbing my teammate in the back!”
‘Helping a team to move forward’ is how Wilson spent his career, but with one or two exceptions, he was doing it from somewhere near the startline, never at a point where the team just needed his input to give it that last push into victory lane. That’s why in terms of win per talent ratio, he’s the most unrewarded IndyCar driver of the past quarter century. A tally of seven victories simply doesn’t do justice to his ability.
I love the fact that at Watkins Glen in 2009, when Justin scored Dale Coyne Racing’s first victory after the team’s quarter-century of trying in vain, there was nothing freaky about the result nor last-man-standing about the race. He qualified second, led 49 of the 60 laps, and was chased home by two Penskes and a Ganassi. I also love that he scored Coyne’s first oval win, three years later at Texas Motor Speedway.
But I still think the 2013 season – when Wilson finished sixth in the championship for DCR, ahead of drivers from the vastly better-funded Andretti and Ganassi teams – was the most clear example of how consistently he overperformed, and therefore how natural was his talent. Over the years, one reads of sports people similar to Justin who are mild-mannered away from their chosen arena, belying their fierce determination in competition. My favorite comment on this topic, though, came from the journalist who once wrote of another great man and ace driver that to him the cockpit of a racecar was like a phone booth for Clark Kent – where the ‘normal’ and self-effacing gentleman became Superman. That’s how many of us came to regard JWil, and it’s why the RuSPORT team’s semi-ironic ‘Badass’ nickname for him truly caught on in subsequent years.
His ultra appealing dichotomy was also reflected in the media obituaries and tributes that swiftly followed the catastrophic accident on August 24, 2015. From young Tony DiZinno through to veteran Robin Miller, and the inbetweeners such as Dave Furst, Marshall Pruett, Jeff Olson, Curt Cavin, Jon Oreovicz, myself and others – we all expressed genuine pain and loss, sympathized 110 percent with those suffering the same emotions but of an overwhelming magnitude, but then also strove to convey the sheer pleasure it had been to know and interact with a man like Justin. Miller’s tribute on NBCSN still makes my eyes water, as does Stefan's brave speech at the end-of-season IndyCar banquet, just eight days later.
Yet the most heartening sources of solace over the next few days came from fans who echoed our sentiments and then shared their memories of this shy but friendly ace. Gratifyingly, it became very clear that Justin’s greatness both in and out of the cockpit had successfully been transmitted around the world over the previous 10 years and that he was truly appreciated. You always worry that in any sport people will look at results without context, or might assume that what they see of a driver on TV or around the paddock is just a show. But in Justin’s case, it seemed everyone who had watched him race, listened to his interviews or met him in the paddock had admired all his virtues.
Two years on, he is still missed, not just because of his talent, heart and approachability, but also his brain. His aforementioned maturity and levelheadedness meant I frequently ‘used’ him because of how his mind worked. Whenever I wanted a completely objective opinion on the sport in general, or on a race, a driver, the cars, a track, a rule change, a safety procedure – whatever – there were only three IndyCar drivers who I trusted to deliver an honest viewpoint untainted by their current or future agendas. Justin was one of those three.
More obvious facets of his generosity of spirit, selflessness and simple good behavior were seen in his work for Honda charities, Robbie Buhl’s ‘Racing for Kids’, his permanent relationships with members of his public limited company who’d supported his career – and of course his decision to donate his organs in the event of his death. But I always hoped that when he retired, hopefully with several more IndyCar wins and a hugely successful sportscar career behind him, that Wilson would find a position within IndyCar management where his thoughtful, enlightened and analytical approach to racing could make a difference.
And then Fate decreed otherwise. Honestly, I try not to dwell on the final accident. It’s unthinkably cruel that this good man died almost because he was doing the right thing – slowing rapidly in response to a crashed car bringing out a full-course caution. A tenth of a second longer on the gas, and that flying nosecone would have bounced harmlessly by him. Appalling, too, that it occurred at a time when he appeared to be on the cusp of a great new adventure; Michael Andretti had recognized what Wilson brought to his team even as a part-timer, and wanted him fulltime for 2016.
It’s still awful to contemplate what Justin’s entire family and close-knit friends experienced then and still go through now. Yes, he was an outstanding sportsman who displayed exemplary sportsmanship, but he was also a wonderful man, and his too-short life will be celebrated and his heartbreaking loss will be mourned by all who remember him.
I hope, however, that I am among many thousands whose lives he touched who can say that these days the memories of Justin Wilson bring a smile.
OK, a sigh and a smile.
NOTE: The Wilson Children’s Fund is an ongoing entity, set up in the aftermath of Justin’s fatal crash, to help ensure his daughters Jane and Jess are taken care of for years to come. Those who wish to donate can do so quickly and easily by heading to WilsonChildrensFund.com
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