SONOMA, Calif.—Greetings from wine country. On the 12-turn, 2.4-mile road circuit here, we will run our final race of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar season—the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. Those of you who can’t make it out to the track can catch the race at 4 p.m. Eastern on NBC Sports Network. Those of you who can make it out here should pack sunscreen. The weather forecast is calling for sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-80s—so that means quick conditions for my No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevy. What’s more, the championship chase will be at full speed. I’m one of six drivers who are still in contention. So we’re in for an epic afternoon. Justin Wilson wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Wilson, of course, died earlier this week after being struck in the head by a piece of debris during last weekend’s race at Pocono. He was 37. This was so unexpected. At the time of his accident, I was already out of the race. I started the day on pole with an awesome car—a super, super fast car. Early in the race, we did a great job of staying up front on green flag cycles and making some amazing changes in the pits. But on one of the restarts, we had a communication breakdown while trying to anticipate the green flag. When it finally did wave, I was caught off-guard and sucked into the traffic behind me. That’s when you have these seven- and eight-wide scenarios on the straightaways. In an attempt to stay out of the wash, I maneuvered to the far outside lane. As soon as I did that, though, I realized I went too high and put myself in a gray area in terms of airflow. From there, turbulence took over and the car spun out, ending my afternoon. I left the track pretty soon after that.
On my way to the parking lot, the yellow flew again as Sage Karam spun out while leading the race. I didn’t see the crash, but I remember looking at a monitor and deducing from the running order that Justin was also affected. While driving to the airport, I learned that Justin had been airlifted to a nearby hospital. I figured that was just a safety precaution. When I finally saw the accident a bit later, on Twitter, I was optimistic. Justin had locked his brakes while driving through the crash zone—which, to me, suggested that he remained in control throughout the chaos. When I received a text message later saying that Justin’s arms were on his head and everything, I thought, He’s gonna be OK.
When I got home to South Beach around midnight, my wife, Adriana, was distressed. She had learned, in her furious text exchanges with our extended IndyCar family, that Justin’s situation was critical. Still, I reassured her that it was going to be OK, that the medical people were probably just saying that to prevent the spread of false information. My thinking was always on the positive side. Cut to 6 o’clock on Monday evening. I get a phone call from my PR guy in Brazil saying that Justin didn’t make it. No way, I tell him. That’s just rumors, people trying to speculate. But from then on, it snowballed. More people started sending me messages. The worst scenario became the truest one. Still, I can’t believe it.
The accident that claimed Justin’s life was such a fluke. At this point, I haven’t spoken with anybody at the league but I have faith that they will learn from it. There are far too many clever people in this sport for an accident like that to happen again. Believe me when I tell you that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
I know people say that a lot but, really, there was no nicer guy on the circuit than Justin. He was very British, you know? Very polite—so much so that I would be like, Come on, this guy must have some way of losing his temper! But never. Never. I remember a few years back, we drivers were trying to form a counsel to communicate our agenda with one voice. I was approached to take a leadership role. I was like, “Listen: I may have a great personality and be funny and all. But because of the serious nature of what we’re trying to do here, my vote would be for Justin because he represents the drivers the best.” Everybody agreed and voted the same, which shows you who Justin Wilson was.
Having to race less than a week after his passing is difficult, more for our families than anyone. I’ve been talking to mine in Brazil all week. The one thing they say is you can never question the mystery of God, and I agree. He’s always asking for the best person, and that was Justin. As tough as it is for us to accept his death, it will be even tougher for his family. I pray for his family to have the strength to move on. Certainly, as drivers we have no choice but to move on. We know what we signed up for. We have to block this out and do what we came here to do this weekend. For me, that means doing everything I can to win a championship.
Still, I have to admit that this goal becomes a bit more challenging to achieve after my crash at Pocono. Before that race, I was 58 points out behind the leader and my Team Penske teammate Juan Pablo Montoya. Now I’m 77 points back—a very wide margin. But don’t for a minute count me out.
With double the points on the line this week, a victory could very well put me over the top. That’s why I’m going to push as hard as I can to win this race. I’m not going to pay much attention to what’s going on with my fellow contenders, which include two of my teammates: Juan Pablo and Will Power, who is just ahead of me in third place. Just as we did at Pocono, we’re going to race each other tough but clean.
As far as what would happen if I were to slip past them and the second-place driver, Graham Rahal, well I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. It would be a big deal for sure, a great conclusion to a season filled with many ups and downs and fill the only hole on my crowded racing resumé. I know I’m looking forward to end the week and the season on a high note. You should too.
Helio Castroneves is the only man in history to have won the Indy 500 three times and Dancing with the Stars at least once. Check out his website, www.heliocastroneves.com, and follow him on Twitter, @h3lio.