MALSHER: A Christmas wish for Justin Wilson

MALSHER: A Christmas wish for Justin Wilson

IndyCar

MALSHER: A Christmas wish for Justin Wilson

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Back when I was a kid, we were taught that Santa Claus could discern the difference between naughty and nice and would reward accordingly when he came to town. This myth was perpetuated by The Crystals, the Jackson 5, Bruce Springsteen and others.
 
Now I’m beginning to wonder if the old boy (Santa, not Bruce) might be losing his touch. His ability to judge who’s been bad or good seems on par with motorsport team owners’ ability to assess racing drivers. And if he really can tell who’s asleep and who’s awake, I’d like a status update on the person at the Lotus Formula 1 team who chose Pastor Maldonado over Nico Hulkenberg. Dormancy is surely the only explanation Well, that or funding. Team owners and investment groups are real sharp at figuring out which drivers have money.
 
That’s why unfunded Justin Wilson regularly finds himself as lacking in IndyCar opportunities as he is in dollars. He’s spent the last 10 years of his career being nice and also being an excellent racecar driver, and where has that gotten him? Ask any of his most talented peers and there’s not one who doubts that JWil in a top car would be a championship contender. Hell, even in a middle-ranking car he regularly threatens for wins and podium finishes, which is how he drove a Dale Coyne Racing car to sixth in the final points standings in the 2013 IndyCar Series championship.
 
Yet neither Chip Ganassi nor Santa Claus nor any other jolly red-faced man has ever climbed down the chimney chez Wilson to deliver Justin a car to match his skills. OK, Messrs Paul Newman and Carl Haas gave him a nice, shiny and quick toy for one race, and Justin put it on pole. But then it broke and had to be put back in its box forever because the series ended that same day. Since then, Justin has performed miracles of a similar magnitude to turning water into wine and, on occasion, he’s even delivered champagne.
 
Regular readers of RACER.com will be aware that this topic is not a new one to either website or writer, but things have developed a little since I last banged this particular toy drum. Wilson has now lost Bill Pappas, his talisman, the race engineer who, like JWil himself, quietly, modestly yet blatantly overachieved for Coyne in 2009, ’12, and ’13. Next year, Bill will be at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, helping rediscover Graham Rahal’s potential, and this has left Wilson disconsolate. He’s unable to follow Bill out the door because now Dale has (understandably) taken up the contract option of the best driver ever to grace the cockpit of one of his cars full-time.
 
To be fair, Justin put himself in this position. After two years of frustration at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, it was he who, when he fled to Coyne for 2012, sought the job security of a two-years-with-a-one-year-option deal, and so Dale is currently merely exercising his rights. But Wilson’s argument is that this is emphatically not the Dale Coyne Racing he signed up for nor is it one that he foresees making progress, year-on-year, enabling him to fight the big three IndyCar teams for the championship. Sure, he was able to seriously mess with them on occasion this past season, but Justin has a feeling (shared by many of us) that sixth in the championship is about as good as it can get for a team in Coyne’s current situation. To be beaten only by two Penske cars, one Ganassi, one Schmidt and one Andretti was a stunning achievement by all concernedbut it would have to happen several more times before it could be described as a trend.
 
He might not admit but I suspect another reason for Wilson’s downbeat mood in this period of festive cheer is that he’s had his ego bruised these past few months. Despite the driver market exploding this year, the only team owners who have come knocking on his door lately were those needing money. On a very basic level, I believe it’s wrong that a driver who’s been part of the five-man elite at the top of U.S. open-wheel for a decade is expected to pay for a ride, pay to bring results and attention for his team and its sponsors. (Would Kobe Bryant pay to play? Would Drew Brees? Would Roger Federer?) Yet this is the environment in which Wilson now finds himself and now his appeal has slipped further since not only does he not bring money, any potential team owner this year would have to buy him out of his contract with DCR. One man who could easily afford to do so and who had a vacancy (or two) over the past few months was Ganassi, but he didn’t contact Wilson surely a missed opportunity.Coyne has at least had the good manners to pay his star drivers over the years, so that’s one major point in favor of Wilson staying where he is. The other plus is that Michael Cannon has been working with DCR in the off-season. He’s a race engineer who most of us would rank right up there with Pappas and he’s someone who could build order and structure into a team that works with a restricted budget. He’s currently trying to help the team during the off-season, adjusting the staffing structure so that each member plays to his strengths, bringing a fresh but experienced outlook to the team’s technical approach and drilling the pit crew to improve its stops.
 
The importance of that latter point can’t be emphasized enough, incidentally. I vividly recall a race several years ago, when one DCR pilot was left seething by the squad’s pit lane disarray. “I busted my ass to pass three cars in that first stint,” he said, “and we gave up four spots at the first pit stop. I got past two of those cars again, but then there was a yellow that bunched us up, so we all pitted together next time around and we lost three positions. I thought, If I just park the car now so I don’t have to do another pit stop, I may be classified higher than if I keep going to the end of the ****ing race!'”
 
Not sure of the driver’s math on that one, but I knew what he meant, and I certainly know there are days when those frustrations have resurfaced in the Wilson era. So Cannon is trying to improve the crew’s pace and consistency and, as he puts it, “trying to do things that could help Justin fulfill his potential.
 
“For some years now, I’ve had this dream of working with Justin because I believe he’s a great driver,” said Cannon last week. “I also think his work methods are spot on he’s calm, knows what he’s talking about, and knows to listen to others who know what they’re talking about. He’s a huge asset to any team.”
 
Wilson, for his part, holds Cannon in high regard. He remembers well enough the occasions when he’s been beaten by a supposedly equal car, not because the guy in the cockpit is his superior but because the guy on his rival’s pit stand is Michael Cannon, who can often provide a crucial edge, be it in terms of setup or strategy. His presence should, therefore, help console a guy who’s gutted by Pappas’s departure. But Wilson has to first see past his own frustrations, and regain faith in the team owner.
 
Dale Coyne is, as many would agree, great company, a man deeply in love with the sport and one who can entertain you for hours with his tales of racing, past and present. Many of his stories are told with self-deprecating humor, too, which is always the mark of someone who’s at peace with himself. However, there are people who have worked with him who wonder if Dale is too content with his place in the IndyCar scheme of things, perhaps relishes that underdog role too much.
 
“Dale’s way of looking at things isinteresting, let’s say,” remarked Wilson a couple months back. “If I was to finish fourth tomorrow and beat one of the Ganassi or Penske cars, he’d be really happy and he’d point out that we achieved that result despite spending twenty thousand dollars less than Chip or Roger that weekend. ErrrOK, I see that point of view, but my argument would be that if we had spent that $20k, maybe we’d have been on the podium
 
“But,” he sighed, “I’m one of the guys who hasn’t had to bring money for my ride. From that point of view, I’m quite privileged. Dale funds most of his own race team. So it’s a bit of a strange situation, to be honest. I’m grateful one day, frustrated the next.”
 
So, I asked Wilson, if Dale is your only option for 2014, might you quit IndyCar altogether? Again, the answer came from a man in a state of flux.
 
“I don’t know,” he replied, “depends what mood I’m in! Dale signing Bill was the reason I joined in 2009 and then rejoined in 2012 and now he’s gone. [Pause] I mean, one of the few areas of the DW12 that is still open to development is the shocks and dampers, OK, but we haven’t had a shock-and-damper program, as such: we had Bill! So what happens now? That’s the kind of thing that makes me wonder if there’s any point in carrying on in IndyCar.
 
“I’m sure Michael is good well, I know he is. But engineering isn’t the whole problem. For example, we need a team manager. Everyone at Dale Coyne Racing has three jobs, it seems, and it’s not fair to expect the next race engineer whether it’s Michael or whoever to be working on other areas of team management and still do his main job at 100 percent. People like Chris Simmons [Ganassi No. 10] and Dave Faustino [Penske No. 12] are able to just work for their drivers, focus on fine-tuning the cars, so if we want to fight those teams on equal terms, Dale needs to let his next race engineer be just a race engineer.
 
“So having a team manager to share the load would be a start but that manager also needs to be given the power to make a difference and not be working with one hand tied behind his back.”Wilson is not wrong to regard Pappas so highly, nor to think of his departure from Dale Coyne Racing as a huge blow. But I’m also confident that Cannon could at the very least maintain the No. 19 car’s level of performance environment permitting. Michael has pored over Bill’s notes from seasons past, and thinks there are areas where he could make a difference, notably, in improving Wilson’s qualifying form. As he murmured, “If it’s correct to say that Justin is one of the top three drivers in the series, it’s not right that he made the Firestone Fast Six only once last year.”
 
True, very true. Wonderful achievement though it was that he finished sixth in the championship, Wilson was always fighting a rearguard action. Of the 2,433 race laps in the 2013 season, the No. 19 DCR car was P1 for just 19 of themin a year when Takuma Sato led 187 laps!
 
Wilson has made his feelings clear to Coyne but things haven’t gotten ugly yet because 1) both Wilson and Coyne are gentlemen, 2) Dale possesses a contract which Justin may yet abide by and 3) recovery from the injuries he incurred in Fontana has been Justin’s priority (it’s going very well, incidentally). But make no mistake, Wilson may yet walk away from IndyCar. I know little about the law in such circumstances, but I’m pretty sure Coyne couldn’t force Wilson to drive for him, yet could prevent him from driving for a rival team.
 
Should IndyCar lose Wilson to the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, that would be a bad blow for a series which has, in the last couple months, already lost one of its true aces. But it would be even sadder for Justin himself. While Dario Franchitti wasn’t able to retire on his own terms, he can at least reflect on a career fulfilled to the max. Wilson, by contrast, has never found his equivalent of a Ganassi, Penske or Andretti car, has never had the chance to show that his bravery, pace, car control and intelligently studious approach to racing can result in regular wins, given the right car and team. RuSPORT, seven long years ago, was his last best shot, and even that turned rancid once Carl Russo had lost interest and Jeremy Dale had been frozen out by the new management.
 
“I think,” said Cannon (LEFT), “that Justin and Dale need to sit down together and talk through their problems,” and I agree, but ultimately, actions speak louder than words. Dale Coyne’s optimism has always been one of his strong points, but the flip side of optimism is unrealistic expectation and that would include expecting Wilson and Cannon to drag DCR further up the championship order while the current team structure is in place. In the stunningly tight field that IndyCar features right now, a team owner whose squad is treading water shouldn’t expect his driver or engineer to walk on it. That’s not how you beat the Dixons and Powers, the Ganassis and Penskes.
 
I want Wilson to stay in IndyCar because I believe he raises the series’ median in terms of both talent and geniality. But more than that, I don’t want such a brilliant racer to spend the next five years of his career as he’s spent the last five, expending vast amounts of effort for very little reward. A top quality driver and top quality guy deserves a top quality car and a top quality team in whichever series he may find it. And I hope Santa remembers that when he reaches Denver, Colo., tonight.

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