IndyCar Series honors Wilson with celebration of life
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Tuesday afternoon turned into a perfect celebration of Justin Wilson's life.
His wife, Julia, was back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Songs from the Rolling Stones, his favorite group, blared in the background. Four-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon urged others to continue Wilson's very personal campaign against dyslexia. Wilson's favorite cocktails were being served backstage. Even the gray skies and falling rain were reminiscent of his British roots.
A little more than a month after the 37-year-old IndyCar driver died from a head injury suffered when he was hit by a piece of debris at Pocono, some of the biggest names in racing gathered at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a final tribute to racing's gentle giant.
''He was my hero, he was my girls' hero, he seems to be everybody else's, too,'' Wilson's widow said. ''He's a special guy.''
That much was evident throughout the stirring 50-minute ceremony.
Some of the six speakers paused to fight back tears. Others told funny stories.
There was some anger expressed about what happened last month, and even a call on IndyCar officials to take another long look at making the sport safer.
But this private gathering was not the place for politics. Instead, it was a place to remember what Wilson had done as one of the sport's great ambassadors.
Among the roughly 600 attendees were longtime team owners Roger Penske and Michael Andretti; Tony George, whose family still owns the speedway; Mark Miles, CEO of IndyCar's parent company; Dixon, the reigning series champ; and more than a dozen other drivers who competed against Wilson last season.
Justin Wilson's two young daughters did not attend. His younger brother, Stefan, who also races open-wheel cars, did make it and was asked to read Julia Wilson's touching letter to the crowd.
''I don't want people to be sad, but to be happy and proud to have known him,'' Wilson read. ''He was my one in a million, and I cherished my time with him.''
Wilson also wrote about the first time she met her future husband, how she enjoyed watching him read to their children knowing how difficult Wilson's own battle with dyslexia had been and how her world had been ''turned upside down'' since the Aug. 23 accident.
In addition to the thousands of letters and donations the Wilson family has received over the past several weeks, NASCAR driver AJ Allmendinger sent a video message. In it, he thanked Wilson for being his teammate, talked about the good times they had together, then refused to say goodbye.
''JWil, I'll see ya later,'' said Allmendinger, who teamed with Wilson and two other drivers to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2012.
Speaker after speaker talked about Wilson's legacy.
While he started eight Indianapolis 500s and won seven times in major open-wheel series, the stats only reveal part of the story of a 6-foot-4 man who longed to race in Formula One, but found a home in America.
The friends who repeatedly referred to Wilson as ''Stretch,'' talked more about Wilson's trademark smile, his engaging personality, his commitment to the profession and his ability to reach fans outside of racing.
''Like (team owner) Mike (Shank) said, we were lucky to get to know Justin,'' longtime family friend and IndyCar team manager Chris Flower said.
On the track's Pagoda Plaza, a slideshow of enduring images played continuously before and after the ceremony, and a video tribute highlighted some of Wilson's greatest moments in racing.
It was clear IndyCar had lost someone it cannot replace.
''He seemed always to be going against the current when he got to IndyCar,'' said Bill Pappas, an engineer who worked with Wilson. ''When he caught the current, he made the competition pay because there was no one better than him at managing a race.
''He was never a `me' guy, he was a `we' guy,'' Pappas continued. ''He was one of us.''
Dixon, the final speaker, acknowledged he had a hard time composing his heartfelt toast.
But the most difficult moment on a difficult day might have been the final scene of the closing video. Wilson was asked during an interview what he did best away from the track, turned his head and gave that familiar look.
''Being a father,'' he said.