24 August, 2015

Justin Wilson

For the second time in four years, a talented British driver's death will overshadow the end of the IndyCar season, and tonight the racing world is heartbroken after losing a gentle giant in Justin Wilson.

I don't have to tell you what a great guy Wilson was or expound on his talented on the track.  What I will say, though, is that his spirit and passion for this sport certainly impressed me, and that should never be overlooked.  So often we hear stories about drivers who lose their racing seats and disappear, or they get told they're too old for a team to take a chance on them.  Or in this case, maybe they're told that they're too tall.

Justin Wilson experienced all of these things and more throughout his racing career, but he just kept fighting.  You don't have enough money to get into F1?  He sold shares of himself to raise money long before crowdfunding really became a thing.  Your racing series is coming to an end and joining with IndyCar?  He immediately made the switch from ChampCar and dove straight into Indy, undeterred in his desire to race.  You lose your seat?  He switched teams, aided by his amiable personality and undeniable talent.

Perhaps in this last fact we can get a great appreciation for the person he was.  His reputation as a driver and a human being preceded him, certainly helping him network and continue to pursue a full-time drive.  And teams took note, knowing full well that he was a consistent, fast, intelligent and personable driver suitable for any team.

With every threat to his career, Wilson found a way to keep going.  Just this year he faced the proposition of a 2015 without IndyCar, but Michael Andretti felt comfortable enough with Wilson's reliability that he provided another car for a partial schedule until more sponsorship could be found.  Wilson delivered on this opportunity just weeks ago with a second-place finish at Mid-Ohio.

But Justin wasn't always smiling.  Put him in a race car, whether it's in Formula 1, IndyCar or Le Mans, and suddenly he was all business.  His intensity shone through his helmet, and it wasn't hard to tell how much he wanted to win—something he did seven times over the course of his American open wheel career.

When he got out of the car, though, the smile would return, the intensity would subside, and he would go back to being generous, tall, soft-spoken Justin, ever the British gentleman to his fans.

We can go on for as long as we want about his character, but the sad fact is, there's a wife and two little daughters grieving tonight.  There's a brother pouring out his soul and admiration for his best friend on Twitter with one heartbreaking tweet after another.  And there's a worldwide racing family mourning and wondering what to do.  After all, we're less than five days away from the first practice session for the final race of the year.

When Dan Wheldon was killed four years ago, at least it was already the final race of the year.  We had an entire offseason to collect ourselves, to be sad and to come together as a confused and distraught family.  But as so often happens in this sometimes cruel and complicated sport, it must go on, and seven days after the accident we'll be back at a circuit to decide the title.  I'm not really sure which is better for healing, honestly, but I'm glad we haven't had enough of these instances for me to decide.

One thing I do know is that the pain and loss will serve a purpose, whether or not we know it yet.  We race every week in IndyCar with the safety measures developed in part by Wheldon in a car bearing his initials.  The Brazilian contingent and many others will tell you that growing up, they wanted emulate the racing exploits of their hero, Ayrton Senna, whose presence can still be felt at tracks around the world after his 1994 death prompted a worldwide revolution in racing safety.  Many race with carbon fiber reinforcement in their helmets after Felipe Massa's near-fatal injury at the Hungarian Formula 1 Grand Prix in 2009.  The list goes on.

Many often criticize racing for only reacting after these incidents occur, but I'm not ready to go into that debate just yet, whether it be about oval racing or closed cockpits.  We can discuss that later, after we've mourned, after we've paid due respects.   It deserves a conversation, no doubt, but now is not the time.  Now is the time to be sad for Justin's family and to send our prayers for his daughters.

This week, let's come together just like we did after Dan, knowing that we were lucky to be able to watch Justin do what he loved.  Know that his loss is being felt around the globe tonight as the news has trended worldwide on Twitter for a few hours now, aided by the thousands of tributes and messages of sympathy from drivers and fans alike.  Know that the racing world will never forget this gentle giant from Sheffield.

"The brave and the fearless accept the risks of what they do because for them Life is Challenge," Steve Matchett said tonight.  "Their great courage teaches us to be strong."

Godspeed, Justin.

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