Justin Wilson: 1978-2015
By now, you've probably heard that IndyCar driver Justin Wilson succumbed to injuries sustained in Sunday's Pocono 500. He was hit in the helmet by a piece of debris from Sage Karam's crashed car. After being resuced from his car, Wilson hung on for just over a day before finally passing away at Lehigh Valley hospital, surrounded by his family. Before the debris had settled, the internet was alight, accustations of blame flying, and debates on the merits of open cockpits in 2015. Less than a month after Formula 1 driver Jules Bianchi succumbed to head injuries sustained in the 2014 Suzuka Grand Prix, racing has once again lost one of its own.
The discussions of how to prevent another of these accidents is merited. But that discussion can wait ever so briefly. For now, we will remember a man who was the embodiment of a British gentleman.
I remember reading about Wilson in Autoweek in the middle of the '00s as he battled in the twilight years of Champ Car, but I didn't really pay attention to him until he was signed by Newman-Haas at the end of 2007. I was a child of the 90s and grew up on the glory days of Andretti and Newman-Haas, so any driver on their team was always on my cheer list. I followed Wilson on and off as he rode the waves of moderate success in IndyCar. “Waves of success” is the most fitting description of Wilson's career I can think of. From the highs of finishing in the top 3 in Champ Car from 2005 to 2007, to being cut from Dale Coyne at the end of 2014, Wilson was always just around the corner from breakthrough success.
He was vastly talented, being beaten only by Sebastian Bourdais in 2006 and '07 in Champ Car. Bourdais was driving for Newman-Haas at the time, by far the best team on the grid, while Wilson drove for RuSport, a team that had only been in ChampCar for three years. Wilson's three years with RuSport showed he could take any car and make it quick. A stable drive with a top team was the mising ingredient for regular wins and championships. Wilson thought he had it with Newman-Haas. He repaid their faith by giving Paul Newman his last win before the actor died in September 2008. Unfortunately for Wilson, with Newman's death, the team shrank and eventually closed, leaving Wilson without a ride. Wilson bounced around between Coyne and Dreyer-Reinbold racing for the next few years, winning at both teams and making Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti drivers sweat as he stalked wins and podiums. Yet despite trumping all three teams on a regular basis, none ever came calling.