Justin Wilson’s smile was the only thing that could dwarf his six-and-a-half foot frame. That smile was wide and clear when I introduced him to my five-year-old daughter on Saturday at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. Justin grinned and asked her about the stuffed doll she dragged in tow and told her he liked the Indy 500 logo on her shirt. We shared a few words. It had been months since we last spoke and more than a decade since I first interviewed him when he was a young driver on the Champ Car circuit trying to make a name for himself in North American open wheel circles. After we finished our brief exchange, Justin headed to pit road. I offered my good wishes for the weekend. They were not enough.
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.
Justin Wilson's Racing Career
Justin Wilson was born on July 31, 1978, in Sheffield, England. He was dyslexic and would later work on behalf of foundations that researched the disorder. He got his start racing karts at age 9 and moved on to open-wheel circuits, beginning with Formula Vauxhall. In 1998 at age 20 he won nine races and the inaugural Formula Palmer Audi Championship.
Wilson drew attention when he won the 2001 International Formula 3000 championship (photo) and competed in the American Le Mans Series in 2002.
In 2003 Wilson became the tallest driver (6’ 4”) in F1 history, spending that year driving for Minardi Cosworth (photo) and Jaguar Racing. To raise money to support his career, he sold shares in himself to nearly 900 investors.
Moving to the U.S. in 2004, Wilson began racing in the Champ Car Series, going on to win four races (his first came in Toronto in 2005) plus three more after the series became IndyCar.
Wilson and former teammate A.J. Allmendinger, who was also a good friend, joined with Oswaldo Negri and Mark Patterson to win the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona in 2012.
Victory at Texas
In 2012, Wilson won at Texas Motor Speedway in what would turn out to be his last IndyCar victory.
In 2013, Justin and his younger brother Stefan raced together in the Grand Prix of Baltimore, the first siblings since the Bettenhausen brothers, Gary and Tony Jr., in 1983 to compete together in IndyCar.
Wilson (front row, left) drove in the Indy 500 eight times, his best finish being fifth in 2013.
Undaunted by danger
Wilson suffered his share of injuries. In 2006 he hit a tire barrier in Queensland, Australia and broke his right wrist. In 2011 he broke his back when his car went airborne at Mid-Ohio, and two years later suffered a broken pelvis and bruised lung in a crash in the season finale at Fontana (pictured). Each time he battled back to keep doing the thing he loved most.
On the move
Despite his talent, versatility and determination, Wilson sometimes had trouble securing rides, often due to lack of sponsors. He drove for six Champ/IndyCar teams, including Andretti Autosport, with whom he signed in 2015, and was widely liked and respected. In June 2015, he made his debut in the all-electric Formula E series with Andretti, finishing 10th in Moscow.
After the death of Dan Wheldon in 2012 (Ed Carpenter is pictured here), Wilson was selected along with Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan to represent the drivers in talks with IndyCar. Among his safety proposals: seamless metal barriers that allow cars to slide freely without getting snagged, and grandstands that are inside racing ovals to better protect fans because debris usually flies to the outside.
On Sunday, August 23, 2015 at Pocono Raceway Wilson was struck in the head by a heavy piece of flying debris from Sage Karam's car, which had hit the wall. He was airlifted to a local hospital where he remained in a coma until his death the next day. He leaves a wife, two daughters, and a grieving racing community that includes NASCAR and F1.
Former teammate Graham Rahal (left with Takuma Sato, center) said of Wilson, “A lot of drivers are great because they’re selfish. But Justin was always the first guy to come up to me and say something positive, something constructive, something helpful. You mention ‘team player,’ that’s Justin, and it’s hard to find that sort of guy in sports. He was just the nicest guy out there.”