Justin Wilson was in a great mood this year after Michael Andretti took him on-board without any sponsorship as part of his multi-car IndyCar team. Justin started half a dozen races for Michael’s team and showed his stuff by finishing a strong second to Graham Rahal at Mid-Ohio a few weeks ago.
But it all went wrong for Justin at Pocono last Sunday when Sage Karam crashed. Karam was leading the race when he lost it in turn one and crashed heavily. A piece of flying debris – the nosecone from Karam’s car – struck Justin’s helmet and he was immediately knocked unconscious. His car turned to the left, clearly without any control, and crashed into the inner wall.
When his car came to a rest Justin sat motionless in the cockpit with his head and helmet slumped forward. The safety team got to him almost instantly and went to work removing him from the car before he was flown by helicopter to hospital in nearby Allentown in critical condition suffering severe head trauma. On Monday evening he passed away.
Justin was one of the great talents of modern global open-wheel racing. F3000 champion in 2001, he raced for Minardi and Jaguar in F1 in 2003 before switching to Champ Car in 2004 with Eric Bachelart’s team. Wilson moved to Carl Russo’s RuSport team for 2005 and ‘06 and won in Toronto and Mexico City in ‘05 and Edmonton the following year. He was third in the ‘05 Champ Car World Series and second to Sébastien Bourdais in ‘06. But then Russo sold his team to Dan Petit and Justin was less competitive in ‘07, although he still managed to finish second to Bourdais in what turned out to be the last year for Champ Car.
Justin appeared to land on his feet when he was hired by Newman/Haas for 2008. Both team and driver moved for the new season from Champ Car to the IRL and Justin and team-mate Graham Rahal were very competitive in most street and road races. Rahal won in St Petersburg and Justin scored an excellent win in Detroit later in the year.
But Newman/Haas was struggling to survive and Justin found himself with Dale Coyne’s little team in 2009. It was the fifth team he’d driven for in six years, but Justin scored the most impressive victory of his career with Coyne at Watkins Glen on the July 4 weekend, producing a virtuoso performance to score the team’s first win in 558 starts and 25 years of trying. Coyne’s little Chicago-based team had just 16 full-time employees and Justin’s victory at the Glen was one of the biggest giant-killing acts in recent IndyCar history.
Justin qualified second at the Glen, out-braked Ryan Briscoe to take the lead on the fifth lap, and led the rest of the way. Justin absolutely drove the wheels off his car that day, using more road than anyone else all the way around every lap. It was a memorable performance and a tremendous accomplishment.
“It’s fantastic to get Dale’s first win and also [Coyne’s wife] Gail’s,” Justin said that day. “The two of them have put a lot of heart and soul into this. We all do. It means a lot to me to get Dale’s first win.
“I think this is the most important victory of my career and I’m looking forward to enjoying it tonight. I got here early and was down in Watkins Glen walking around. You see all those names on the pavement down there of guys who have won here in Formula 1 and it’s pretty cool to get your name up there on the board of winning at Watkins Glen with some of the best.”
He may not have made it to the top of F1, but Justin Wilson established himself as one of IndyCar’s greatest contemporary drivers, a man capable of winning with many teams. Justin was also an impeccable gentleman and a proper husband and parent, a man to emulate in every way. He will be deeply missed by everyone who knew him and many fans around the world.
Hunter-Reay calls for change
After winning last Sunday’s race at Pocono, Ryan Hunter-Reay talked about the dangers of racing open cockpit cars. “These cars are inherently dangerous with an open cockpit and your head exposed,” Hunter-Reay remarked. “Maybe in the future we can work towards some type of canopy. We’ve seen some concept renderings of something like a jet fighter canopy that would give us a little more protection. To get hit in the head by a nosecone is a scary thought.
“We’re always looking for ways to make this series safer. First of all we had the innovation of the Safer barriers and now it’s time for a new Safer barrier. I think on oval tracks in general we need to start looking into the next 20 years. Maybe we could make the walls a little higher, or maybe come up with something a little bit better than mesh fencing and poles.
“We need to start moving forward on these things. IndyCar has always been in the forefront of safety. I give them a lot of credit for that.
“When it comes to open-wheel cars, open-wheel means open cockpit. It’s always been that way. There have been some renderings of an almost boomerang-looking device in front of the driver that won’t block your vision but would deflect something like this.
“I’ve seen many renderings, but unfortunately it’s only natural that when there is a situation like this, it breeds innovation. That’s unfortunate, but I think that’s the way life is in general. That’s the way everything works. Hopefully, we can move forward with a positive light on things like flying debris through the air.
“The IndyCar series is much more dangerous than NASCAR,” Ryan added. “That’s something that’s more in our minds than in some other forms of racing like NASCAR or sports car racing. I’m not saying that we’re better because of it. It’s just a part of it.”