That beaming smile was one of two looks for which Wilson was known. His other façade was its antithesis: a stare of absolute concentration that the sports fan in me can only compare to Bob Gibson or Nolan Ryan when their eyes locked on to an opposing batter. This cast of stoic confidence must have made other drivers squirm a bit in their cockpits. I imagine this look was on Wilson’s face during the race on Sunday afternoon when his Indy car swung around the first turn in an attempt to navigate the remnants of Sage Karam’s disintegrated Dallara. There was not enough time.
Although I have covered Indy-style racing for many years, I was not in the stands last weekend as a producer or director, but as a fan of a sport I love, using the last few days of a summer vacation to take my daughter to a track for the first time. With this choice came that awful moment as we watched the medevac copter fly away from the infield, carrying Justin and with him hope, I had to explain to my child about racing’s truth—every weekend the drivers defy death. Sometimes, all the practice laps, the crashes they avoid, the lead changes and the pageantry can’t paint a happy face—a smile like Wilson’s—on an outcome that lacks any triumph whatsoever. There are not enough miracles.
I like so many fans of racing and sports fans in general wonder how we can make racing safer. I have asked myself could Wilson’s life have been spared and continued with hardware protocol changes? There is a place for these questions. We will find their answers and make racing better, but in the meantime I choose to dwell on Justin’s life. I will remember the interactions we had in various paddocks across North America. I can reflect on his first win so many years ago in Toronto, and remember that amazing grin—the one he wore that day and the one he walked away with on Saturday as we parted ways. Right now, this must be enough.
DT Slouffman is the Showrunner of SI Now
GALLERY: Justin Wilson’s Racing Career