I’m late to the party I never wanted to go to when it comes to expressing sadness and shock over the freak accident that befell Justin Wilson in the penultimate round of the IndyCar series at Pennsylvania’s Pocono oval nine days ago.
One of British motorsport’s greatest exports, who had settled so well into life in America’s top single-seater category, was a gentle giant who I first met in the mid-90s when he’d just started climbing the treacherous car-racing ladder.
I recall vividly his win at South Wales venue Pembrey in the Formula Vauxhall Junior Winter Series at the end of 1994; that day he became the first 16-year-old to win a race in the UK and it marked him out as a man to watch.
He battled dyslexia, a height disadvantage and an endearing shyness to win races in Formula Vauxhall with Paul Stewart Racing and secure 1998 title success in the inaugural Formula Palmer Audi series – the brainchild of former F1 racer Jonathan Palmer, who’d go on to champion Justin’s cause and help him reach grand prix racing – and win his third season of F3000 in 2001, defeating Mark Webber.
His dream of reaching the pinnacle of his profession came in 2003 with a seat at back-of-the-grid team Minardi. He faced head-on the very obvious challenges that came with trying to prove oneself at that end of F1, before landing the second Jaguar seat from the German GP onwards, alongside former F3000 rival Webber.
After five races with the financially and politically beleaguered team, in which he’d scored a best result of eighth in the US GP at Indianapolis, Justin’s F1 dream was over and America’s Champ Car World Series beckoned.
US racing seemed to suit his smiling-yet-serious disposition and he finished sixth on his debut with Conquest Racing on the streets of Long Beach at the start of 2004. At year’s end he secured 11th in the points and finished second among the rookies.
His stock having risen, he joined RuSport for 2005 and won twice to join an elite band of Brits – comprising Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Nigel Mansell, Mark Blundell and Dario Franchitti – to taste success on the other side of the Atlantic. And he bettered that year’s third in the championship table with the runner-up spot, again with RuSport, in both 2006 and 2007.
‘Through it all, he remained an absolutely top bloke who had time for everybody and was utterly unaffected by status or success. He was unwaveringly normal, grateful for the cards he’d been dealt and gracious about the ones he hadn’t.’
I fondly remember his visit to Autosport International, the world’s leading racing car show held each January at Birmingham’s NEC, as a RuSport new recruit 10 years ago. And a night out with team-mate AJ Allmendinger, who’d beaten him to rookie honours in ’04, and a select bunch of his British journo friends during the exhibition remains littered with personal highlights – none of which I can remember right now…
With his US career now going great guns, he joined series king Newman-Haas-Lanigan for 2008 – just as the struggling Champ Car series was absorbed into the IndyCar Series – formed in the mid-1990s after a split between Champ Car and the promoters of its blue-riband event the Indianapolis 500.
He only won once for NHL in what was a tricky season and switched to veteran privateer outfit Dale Coyne Racing for 2009. The feel-good factor of Justin giving former racer-turned team owner Coyne his maiden win – at Watkins Glen – that season was palpable.
And he won again for Coyne in 2012, after two winless seasons for Dreyer and Reinbold in 2010-’11, although his victory at the Texas Speedway would be his last in the series.
The 2015 season represented a breakthrough for Justin, thanks to a bit of early-season patience. After sitting out the first four races of the year he landed a deal to tackle the two Indianapolis events in May for the crack Andretti Autosport team. That led to a return for the final five races and in the third of those, on the Mid-Ohio road course, he took a strong second place, prompting talk of a Wilson resurgence and the hope that he’d get a proper crack in 2016.
Through it all, he remained an absolutely top bloke who had time for everybody and was utterly unaffected by status or success. He was unwaveringly normal, grateful for the cards he’d been dealt and gracious about the ones he hadn’t.
The IndyCar community rallied in typical fashion during the championship showdown at the Sonoma road course in California on Sunday, with all the cars carrying tribute decals and the drivers donating their helmets for an online auction, proceeds from which will go to the Wilson Children’s Fund. It was pretty emotional stuff when the British National Anthem was played and two planes created Justin’s number 25 with smoke above the circuit.
As Holly Wheldon, sister of the late Dan Wheldon, who was killed in the Las Vegas IndyCar finale in 2011, tweeted soon after Justin’s death: ‘May these two gorgeous British boys rest in peace together’.
Photography courtesy Biran Lipovetsky, Carey Akin and Nic Redhead.