Stefan Wilson - Indy 500 or bust

Stefan Wilson - Indy 500 or bust

IndyCar

Stefan Wilson - Indy 500 or bust

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                                                                                                                                  All photos by LAT Photographic

His heart’s in the right place and he has a good brain in his head, but his backside is rarely where it deserves to be ” in the cockpit of an open-wheel racecar. And so Stefan Wilson has set himself a sort-of deadline to correct this, get regular seat time in IndyCar and start the world’s biggest race. He explained his strategies to RACER editor David Malsher.

He’s about nine feet tall, his last name is Wilson and he’s hooked on IndyCar racing. Sounds familiar. But this is Stefan ” 24 years old, 11 years younger than his brother Justin and with (potentially) a 15-year open-wheel career still ahead of him.

How good is he? Honestly, we don’t know for sure because he’s had a wretched time for the past two seasons, trying to find a ride in anything quicker than the pace cars in which he takes the uninitiated on hot laps around IndyCar’s various tracks. What we do know, though, is that the younger Wilson has made the most of any opportunity he’s been given, and has shown more than a hint of his big brother’s deft touch, ballsy driving and smart racing brain. In other words, he could have major potential.

Back in 2007, on the back of his first  season in open-wheel racing, in which he finished second in the UK’s Formula Palmer Audi championship (quicker than F3, slower than GP2), Stefan won the McLaren Autosport BRDC award (BELOW RIGHT), which is given to the most promising British junior driver, as judged by members of three prestigious organizations ” the McLaren Formula 1 team, Autosport magazine and the British Racing Drivers Club. In the past, it had been won by such as David Coulthard, Oliver Gavin, Dario Franchitti, Jenson Button and Paul di Resta, all of whom have maximized their potential in their chosen field. (In di Resta’s case, there’s more to come). It’s also interesting to note the quality of drivers who’ve reached the finalist stage of this award and not won it ” for example, people like Dan Wheldon, Guy Smith, Ryan Dalziel and er? Justin Wilson. In other words, the standards are high.

Winning that award helped earn Stefan a place in British Formula 3, albeit in the National Class, a B-division with older-spec cars, and he did well to score four wins. But with little funding left, he felt his pounds sterling would stretch further if he converted them to dollars. A part-time ride in Indy Lights with Walker Racing in 2009 earned him a full-time gig at Bryan Herta Autosport the following year, and now he started to show his potential, with a couple of podium finishes.

That, in turn, led to Andretti Autosport which should have been Wilson’s ticket to the big time, maybe even a championship. However, 2011 was Sam Schmidt Motorsports’ most dominant campaign in a category where it had long been king, and Team Moore, too, arguably had better cars than Andretti at that point. Despite this, Wilson drove his heart out all year, scored wins at Toronto and Kentucky, and finished third in the championship behind the Schmidt pairing of Josef Newgarden and Esteban Guerrieri. He could scarcely have done more.

Since then, though?almost nothing. There was a one-off for Fan Force United at Fontana’s Indy Lights round last year (LEFT), and then his IndyCar debut this past September partnering Justin at Dale Coyne Racing in Baltimore. And so now there is a harsh reality that keeps crowding the younger Wilson’s thoughts, and it’s this: There have been/are/will always be young drivers who single-mindedly chase a single-seater career only to discover that no one significant cares enough to investigate and invest in their talent, and so the would-be rising star subsequently fades and disappears from the racing radar. And then there are other drivers who comb the market for money, find there’s nowhere near enough for a ride in the ?big cars,? and take a practical approach, decide they must earn a living, and switch instead to sports cars, sedans or even NASCAR.

Stefan has not yet reached that career crossroad and he can afford to delay his dilemma for a little longer. After all, drivers like Justin, Will Power and James Hinchcliffe didn’t make their Indy car debuts until their mid-20s, and look how highly regarded they are now. But two years of largely hanging around the IndyCar paddock, trying to put sponsorship deals together and show that open-wheel racing is his first choice have left Stefan very aware that chasing his No. 1 dream cannot go on indefinitely. And the United SportsCar Championship, together with its FOX Sports TV deal, could be key to a long and reasonably lucrative future in the sport?

At Houston two weekends ago, Stefan Wilson explained to RACER his situation and philosophy.

RACER: What’s your current goal and are you close to doing any deals?

STEFAN WILSON: The main focus for me right now is getting a ride in IndyCar, and I’ve been talking with two or three teams, but the one I really want is with the team that gave me my debut, Dale Coyne Racing. I think it’s likely that this is where Justin will remain next year and I can’t think of a better guy to be teammates with. He’s talented, got a lot of experience and the way we worked together in Baltimore was, I thought, really helpful to me as a rookie. Seeing the way he worked, learning from him ” kind of like how Hinch did with Oriol Servia in his rookie year ” would be ideal, I think. Driving alongside a veteran really helps you grow quicker as a driver, so that’s my number one goal.

R: You don’t need telling that there are many people who want to have that ride, especially given some of the Coyne team’s performances this year, with Mike Conway winning at Detroit, and Justin in the top five in the championship?

SW: Oh I’m sure there’s a bunch of drivers chasing Coyne, but I hear there’s a possible second car at Sarah Fisher’s team and at Ed Carpenter’s, too, so we’re investigating those. Working with Nirvana Tea, Hippino.com, Hippino Travel, Xclusive Enterprises and also some other potential sponsors, I’m trying to position myself to do a test in the offseason and ultimately land a full time seat with one of those teams.

R: How would you assess your performance in your IndyCar debut? Baltimore’s not the ideal track to learn about a racecar?

SW: It was definitely a tricky situation, because I hadn’t had any testing and it’s easy to overlook that and not appreciate the scale of what we had to do with limited track time. Every other rookie in the series has been able to come in with at least two days of testing before they get into the race weekend. I had a handful of laps at Barber Motorsports Park six months earlier, and then jumped into the car at arguably one of the toughest tracks on the schedule!

So I was pleased I didn’t make any mistakes until the moment I had in the race where I got on the marbles and tagged the wall. The good thing is that the people who need to be impressed, the ones in the know, understood the challenge I faced and the whole team was really pleased with the job I did, not just on the driving side but also working with the engineers and also working with Justin. It was good to know that my feedback was accurate, because obviously Justin was there ” someone who I trust and they trust ” and we were giving the exact same feedback. We were all working in the same direction, which is very encouraging for me

Of course you always want to be faster and do better, but it keeps coming back to time in the seat, and you cant make up for that, not at this level when you’re competing with guys like Dixon, Franchitti and Castroneves. Comparing data sets, there were quite a few areas where me and JW were evenly matched; most of the time difference was in the high commitment areas like turn 10, and that just comes with seat time and confidence in the car and how it is going to react when you push it that little bit more.

At the end of the weekend I knew where the time was, and I was kicking myself for not getting that bit more out of it in those areas, but at the same time it would have been so easy as a rookie to overdo it, and cause the team a serious headache of putting the car back together. I think I showed maturity in my debut, and I hope enough potential to get another shot.

R: Would you consider a Schmidt Indy Lights ride as a step back?

SW: I wouldn’t overlook it if that opportunity came up ” I’m a racer and I want to race anything I can get ” but to be honest, it’s not a priority right now. If things don’t work out in IndyCar, I’m fielding opportunities from Daytona Prototype teams right now, and I’m also looking hard at GTs. I’d like to align myself with a manufacturer, and I always find myself watching the GT battles because it’s some of the best racing around.

R: Absolutely. So you’re saying that sports cars rather than Lights would be your next best option to IndyCar?

SW: Yeah, and it would be a tough decision to make to give up chasing IndyCar, but I’ve got to do what’s right for myself. People like Olly Gavin, Jan Magnussen and more recently John Edwards and Jonathan Bomarito were all really promising open-wheel drivers who got tired of chasing non-existent money for open-wheel racing, and have become stars in sports cars. I admire them for biting the bullet and making that transition, and eventually I may have to do the same. It’s great to have interest from a few sports car teams right now and I do believe the USCC is going to be a very big chance for that branch of the sport to re-establish itself here in America. It has a lot of potential.

R: Would you say there was a deadline after which you will alter your focus? Another year, another two years??

SW: Well I’m hoping to just know inside when will be the right time to change direction. But if I can’t get in a car for the Indy 500 or some more IndyCar races next year then I think my attention is definitely going to switch more to sports cars. You can’t wait around forever. I miss being behind the wheel of a racecar, and that has to start happening on a more regular basis. I’ve got to be in a car of some sort;. I’ve already set in my mind that next year I’ve got to be in the ?500.?

R: What would be your best-case scenario for 2014?

SW: Best case, a permanent ride in IndyCar with two or three drives in sports cars as the third man for the three endurance races ” Daytona, Sebring and Petit Le Mans. Worst-case scenario, I hope, will see me with a ride for the Indy 500 and a couple other IndyCar races, and then a handful of USCC events. European sports cars doesn’t really appeal; I’m quite settled here in America, made my home in Indianapolis. I want to stick to that, and so it would have to be something pretty special to persuade me to change?

R: Audi, Porsche, Toyota?

SW: Yeah, maybe I’d give Europe a second look then!! Racing at Le Mans would be very cool.

R: Lucas Luhr struggled to get on the pace in his one-off IndyCar drive at Sonoma, and there’s a guy with a fabulous record in a seriously fast HPD sports car. Did that give you encouragement that these cars IndyCars are tough?

SW: Well, I wouldn’t say I was pleased that Lucas struggled! But there’s no question that the level in IndyCar is very high. Look at Rubens Barrichello: he came over and joined a pretty good team, and he didn’t even score a podium and didn’t look like scoring one, either. Two years earlier, he’d been fighting for the Formula 1 World Championship. I think that says a lot about this series and how tough it is.

R: It’s sad that it has to be this way, but I must ask: how’s the sponsorship quest going?

SW: Having Nirvana Tea & Hippino behind me is great. They’re both based out of Michigan, and they were really thrilled with the experience at Baltimore. For Nirvana Tea, that was the first time they’d been involved in sponsorship at a sporting event of any kind and they had a phenomenal time, so we’re working with them to create some good B2B angles. Hopefully that’s a partner I can take with me in the future whether its IndyCar or USCC.

I’m working with Xclusive Marketing Agency, headed up by Chris Holdsworth, to grow our sponsorship and also assist me investigate every angle and the next steps in my career. Xclusive will be at Petit Le Mans to meet with a few prospective sports car teams to talk about opportunities for next season.

R: If Justin does move on from Coyne, would you still be interested in being there?

SW: Oh, totally, yeah. I loved working with those guys at Baltimore, and I’ve been hanging around with them since Justin joined, watching over their shoulders, and we seem to all get along well.

R: How many days of testing could you have had, in theory, this year?

SW: Well, between manufacturer days and open test days, I think there have been four or five, which isn’t great, but it’s better than I got. We were really unlucky in our Barber test. The exhaust overheated which melted the electronics controlling the gearshift mechanism. The first 10 or 15 laps, it wasn’t registering downshifts, and without any experience, I was wondering, ?Do I need to blip on downshifts like in an Indy Lights car?? That got fixed, and so I got another 15 laps on old tires. Then I switched to the new tires and literally first lap out there was my fastest lap of the day, and the second lap I was half a second up when the gearbox stuck in fourth. That was a real kick in the nuts.

I worked it out the other day that by the end of the weekend at Baltimore, I’d still only had four and a half hours in an IndyCar! In the race, my best lap was 0.8sec from Justin’s and that gap was closing throughout the weekend so given an actual test day, when you might get six or seven hours in the car, I know I can be competitive in this series.

R: The important thing is that others realize that. You seem armed with evidence and potentially some good sponsorship.

SW: Yeah, and I’d say that’s why I’m heading into the offseason in a positive frame of mind. There are some irons in the fire that I think will help get me in an IndyCar for a test so I can prove myself. As we mentioned earlier, it is so tough out there so you’ve got to give yourself the right chances. When one second can cover the whole field in qualifying, you just cannot afford to leave anything on the table, but being able to push to the limit can only come from confidence?which will only come with miles. During the race, I was closing on the top 10 at one point and I was lapping within a second of the fastest car, so there’s no doubt in my mind that the gap is closeable if I get a decent chance.

But I’m also eager to get out in a big car on the ovals. I really want to race in the Indy 500. Indianapolis is now my home, and I consider myself a semi-Hoosier now. Even watching ?Turbo? and thinking about how majestic that track is gave me goosebumps.

So those are my intentions. I hope I can stay in IndyCar in some form, but I’m keen to explore USCC, and I’d love the opportunity to get stuck into those GT battles we talked about.

We’ll see where the journey takes me!

MX-5 Cup | Watkins Glen – Round 8

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