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When Justin Wilson ended Dale Coyne's 25-year wait for victory

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When Justin Wilson ended Dale Coyne's 25-year wait for victory
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May 6, 2020, 4:50 PM

No one who watched it will forget the day when Dale Coyne Racing reached Victory Lane for the first time, after almost a full quarter-century of trying, and driver Justin Wilson humbled Penske and Ganassi in the process. David Malsher-Lopez recalls a remarkable underdog triumph – and its backstory.

No U.S. open-wheel driver of the past 30 years has had his skills so poorly represented by the statistics book as Justin Wilson. That he scored only seven wins in his tragically foreshortened career is a gross misrepresentation of a talent that, had it ever been employed by one of the ‘big’ teams, could have seen him rack up four times that victory tally and earn a couple of championships.

But those seven wins were all special. In Champ Car, he scored all three wins earned by the Colorado-based RuSPORT team which, like Wilson himself, had arrived in the series in 2004 and was snapping at the heels of the big teams (Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing and Forsythe Racing) a year later. Wilson then scored the only win for RSPORT – an unhappy amalgam of RuSPORT and Rocketsports Racing – and then, following the Champ Car and Indy Racing League merger, he earned the final win for the legendary Newman/Haas/Lanigan outfit at Detroit in 2008.

Wilson on his way to Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing's final win at Detroit in 2008.

Wilson on his way to Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing's final win at Detroit in 2008.

Photo by: Adriano Manocchia

But then, in 2009, Wilson triumphed in one of the most memorable Indy car races of this century, driving Dale Coyne Racing into victory lane in the Plainfield, IL-based team’s 25th year of trying in vain.

The magic lies in the backstory. Wilson, the 2001 champion of Formula 3000 (now sensibly renamed Formula 2), had slotted into the underdog role almost from the moment he came across the Atlantic. Driving for the Conquest Racing team, he had achieved four top six finishes in ’04 Champ Car season, and then joined RuSPORT. After three seasons spent wrestling (and very occasionally beating) someone of comparable talent driving for the best team – Sebastien Bourdais at Newman/Haas/Lanigan – JWil leapt at the chance to replace the Frenchman who was heading off to Formula 1. Wilson would surely have been a prime contender for the Champ Car title in 2008, along with Walker Racing’s rising star Will Power.

A couple of years later, Craig Hampson, NHLR’s star race engineer for Bourdais (four straight championships) and then for Wilson, told me: “Justin and Sebastien ask for different things from a car but they’re both intense competitors, race winners, and hjad already succeeded in high levels of motorsport. So we had every expectation of continuing our winning ways with Justin. You have to adapt to a new driver, but we were confident about what Justin would bring to the table. Plus we had employed both of the guys who had race engineered for him at RuSPORT. It was about as good a situation as it could be…”

And then suddenly it wasn’t. The merger between Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series was vital for the future of the U.S. open-wheel scene and largely welcome, but it spelt the end for some CCWS teams, while the survivors had the uphill struggle of learning the IRL’s Dallara chassis. That rendered even Wilson and Power only fitfully fast on road and street courses, and mediocre on ovals. Suddenly Justin’s prime opportunity to translate talent into results at NHR had been turned into a major battle to score a memorable result. Heck, even the GP of Long Beach – the last ever Champ Car race – saw him take pole but retire with a rare engine failure. He just couldn’t buy a break.

Meanwhile in the IRL cars, due to bad luck on race days, Wilson’s potential rarely stretched beyond qualifying, even on road and street courses – third on the grid at St. Pete, second at Watkins Glen, fourth at Mid-Ohio, sixth at Edmonton (where he was at last able to nail a podium finish), seventh at Sonoma and fourth at Detroit. Finally, there, the stars aligned and he won just in time for team co-owner, Hollywood icon and major racing fan Paul Newman to celebrate one last time before dying just one month later.

All Wilson’s effort that year seemed for naught during the off-season when the tanking global economy and the absence of Mr. Newman to coax more dollars from the deal saw McDonald’s heavily reduce its funding of Newman/Haas/Lanigan. The golden arches moved over to the car of Wilson’s erstwhile teammate Graham Rahal, and ex-Formula 1 driver Robert Doornbos was put in the second NHLR entry.

Penske's polesitter Briscoe and Wilson's Coyne entry head the field into Turn 1, Lap 1.

Penske's polesitter Briscoe and Wilson's Coyne entry head the field into Turn 1, Lap 1.

Photo by: Philippe Champoux

Wilson, who rightfully felt he had done a whole lot right and not a lot wrong in 2008, was now left casting around for a ride. At the same time, Dale Coyne Racing was also looking for a driver, having decided to cut down to one full-time entry. Dale had ditched Bruno Junqueira and Mario Moraes, the latter of whom would take his funding and fractious talent to KV Racing. Junqueira, who had done a fine job for DCR in 2007 driving the Panoz Champ Car by earning three podiums had never looked the same guy in an IRL Dallara in ’08, even though he was crucial in guiding the team’s setups for ovals.

Then Coyne hired Bill Pappas who over the previous 15 years had been a winning race engineer for former Indy car stars Jimmy Vasser, Gil de Ferran, Juan Pablo Montoya and Junqueira. With that signing, suddenly it became obvious that Coyne was ready to step up and make a big impression in his 25th year of open-wheel racing but only the second under Indy Racing League regulations. Briefly, I was one of few folks outside Plainfield, IL who knew of Coyne’s new hire, so I called up Justin – ‘Hey, Bill Pappas has come back from NASCAR and signed with Dale!… Yeah really!… You seriously need to call him…’. It was one of my shorter calls with Justin, because he knew Pappas’ pedigree, recognized Coyne was getting serious, and swiftly called him.

It took just one test for the trio to gel and became a mutual admiration society.

Wilson: “I’m grateful to Dale for the opportunity to prove myself,” and, “Working with Bill is an education.”

Coyne: “Bill liked the idea of pushing us further up the learning curve with this car, and Justin obviously has a great talent for the twisty stuff, but also has this real fire in him which we needed for qualifying.”

Pappas: “I don’t see being a small team as a handicap in this series… You don’t have managers or departments within departments. You just sit down with two or three guys and say, ‘Look, we’ve got to get this done.’”

His verdict on his driver? “Justin is incredibly talented. On a road or street course, we just need to get the wheels on straight and he can do the rest!”

They almost won their first race together, the 2009 season-opener in St. Petersburg, leading more laps than anyone. But Wilson made a slight mistake on the last turn before a restart with 14 laps to go, lost momentum briefly, and had to cede the lead to Ryan Briscoe’s Team Penske entry into Turn 1. Further around that lap, he was further demoted to third by Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Vision Racing car. Still, from a wider perspective, a podium finish wasn’t a bad start for the triumvirate.

An opportunity was squandered at Long Beach when the #18 Z-Line-sponsored DCR car was an innocent victim in a stupid but typical pile-up at the hairpin – Wilson believed he would have been third that day – and then the next six races, all ovals, were inevitably mediocre for the team as a whole. The ninth round was Watkins Glen.

Wilson's small mistake in the season-opener at St. Pete had allowed Briscoe to slip past in the late stages. At Watkins Glen, Wilson took the lead from Briscoe early on and there would be no gifts to his pursuer...

Wilson's small mistake in the season-opener at St. Pete had allowed Briscoe to slip past in the late stages. At Watkins Glen, Wilson took the lead from Briscoe early on and there would be no gifts to his pursuer...

Photo by: Philippe Champoux

There was a test on the classic 3.37-mile road course beforehand, and Wilson went from depressed to happy over the course of the day as the team whittled its deficit to the Penske and Ganassi cars – which had won the first eight races of the season – from large to minimal. Sure enough, come qualifying, Justin delivered with a front-row grid slot, outpaced only by Briscoe, and therefore ahead of the other ‘red’ cars – that is to say, Briscoe’s Penske teammate Helio Castroneves, plus the Ganassi cars of Franchitti and four-time Watkins Glen winner Scott Dixon.

Wilson comfortably held second at the start, and then started hounding Briscoe. Exiting Turn 1 with a little more speed on Lap 4, the Coyne car was tied to the Penske rear wing down the hill and through the fast, no-margin sweepers, and hit the back straight with a tad more momentum. Wilson ducked out of Briscoe’s slipstream, drew level and had the inside for the Bus Stop chicane that followed. Then he was off and ready to dominate.

Pitstop sequences aside, the Coyne car continued leading and, following the final tire changes for all leading cars, he remained up front, taking the lead for the final time on Lap 46 of the 60 lap race. The only worry came when a backmarker shunted on Lap 52 and brought out the caution flags. For the Lap 54 restart, the Coyne car would be tailed by Briscoe, Dixon and Castroneves…

“We’re going to do a restart, we’ve got a fast guy behind us who was awful fast yesterday, but Justin’s done a great job, so we’ll see what happens and hope for the best,” said a smiling but clearly nervous Coyne to ABC’s pitlane reporter. “We’re David and there’s two Goliaths. Of course it makes it special. The top two teams have won every race this year. It would good to win one.”

Away from the TV, Coyne was being extra cautious and he recalled the moment some races later.

Dale Coyne and wife Gayle had to wait a quarter-century for that day in NY state.

Dale Coyne and wife Gayle had to wait a quarter-century for that day in NY state.

Photo by: Adriano Manocchia

“Two laps before we went green, I told Bill to remind Justin over the radio about St. Pete. So Bill said to Justin: ‘Right, we need a good restart, don’t need a repeat of St. Petersburg!’ Suddenly it’s all quiet at the other end of the radio, and then there’s this sigh and a [Coyne did a convincing impression of an Eeyore-like downbeat Wilson] – ‘Ohhh-kayyy…’. Pretty funny – but only afterwards. At the time we were dead serious. But you know Justin: he doesn’t make the same mistake twice so we probably didn’t need to be coaching him that much.”

When the green dropped for the final time with six laps to go, Wilson scampered off while Briscoe, attempting to get his harder-compound Firestones up to temperature, initially struggled just to keep his Penske under him and Dixon behind him. Meanwhile Wilson pulled out four seconds in three laps, and then inched away still further, passing the checkered flag 4.99sec to the good.

“It took too long!” said an exultant Coyne after a quarter-century of struggle which had involved plenty years of going into battle with drivers who never belonged at Indy car level – Charlie Nearburg, Paul Jasper and Geoff Boss immediately spring to mind but there were plenty more. “We’ve been trying hard. We put a good group of people together this year. We knew Justin was a strong road racer. We almost showed it at St. Pete. We showed it here big time.”

Reflecting on his most famous glory as a 6ft3.5in David beating the Goliaths, Wilson observed: “[At the start of the season] I thought we could do well on some of the road courses, but I expected it to be a little bit hit ’n’ miss. I thought that maybe we’d get lucky one time – you know, one of those races where a third place unexpectedly turns into first place.

“So I was very pleased and very satisfied that it wasn’t luck that brought us our win. It was pure speed.”

Coyne concurred: “We had podiums with Bruno in that last year of Champ Car but each time he was coming from the back and we had to get him up front through strategy. Our Watkins Glen win, we went and took.”

"Atta boy!"

Photo by: Andy Sallee

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About this article

Series IndyCar
Drivers Justin Wilson
Teams Dale Coyne Racing
Author David Malsher-Lopez