MALSHER: Justin Wilson – A towering talent and a great man

MALSHER: Justin Wilson – A towering talent and a great man

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MALSHER: Justin Wilson – A towering talent and a great man

I know Justin would be embarrassed by this story, because he was always too self-effacing to take compliments well. He’d always say “thanks” because he was polite, but he’d then swiftly change the subject.

I’ve written before how no Indy car driver of the past quarter century had been so poorly served by the stat books as Justin. That’s why all his fans – and I’m not ashamed to count myself among them – wanted so desperately for him to have the chance to translate that immense talent into a string of wins. By 2011, he grudgingly admitted he could hear the clock ticking on his single-seater career. Two years later, he told me he’d try for maybe five more seasons – basically taking him up to the age of 40 – before quitting his annual pursuit of an IndyCar ride where he needed only to bring his talent. At Andretti Autosport, it seemed there was that chance

At the start of this year, before the part-time deal with Michael’s team was announced, JWil was in reflective mood. “I’ve spent too many off-seasons trying to find a new team or watching whichever team I’m with letting go of the good staff. It’s always back to square one. The really successful drivers and teams have continuity, whereas in my career someone keeps hitting the reset button… and sometimes it’s me, out of choice! I’m not blaming anyone in particular. That’s the way it is.”

He paused and shrugged. “But you know, maybe I’m stupid; there are a lot of drivers in my situation, and the smart ones eventually give up and go sports car racing. And the really smart ones switch early when they’re still young and get themselves a good manufacturer deal in prototypes or GTs. But…”

You still feel you’ve got unfinished business in open-wheel racing?

“I hope so,” he sighed. “That’s always been my target. I grew up loving Formula 1, watching Mansell and Prost and Berger and Senna. I was pleased to start a few grands prix, pissed when it fell through, but when I started looking at chances here in the U.S., I just realized that’s where I should be. I don’t think I’d have dealt well with all the political bullshit in F1. I’ve always wanted to put my effort into driving and helping a team to move forward, not stabbing my teammate in the back!”

I’m somewhat alarmed yet also proud to realize it’s about 20 years since I first saw Justin in action. He was piloting a little Formula Vauxhall Jr car (an equivalent to Formula Ford) at Silverstone and I soon noticed how brave he was: some of his maneuvers on race day made hardened race observers wince. But he always seemed to get away with it, which said a lot about his car control and racing savvy, and those who watched him in Formula Palmer Audi cars echoed those sentiments. Winning that FPA title and, most tellingly, the 2001 Formula 3000 championship (BELOW, Spa, with Ricardo Mauricio and Sebastien Bourdais), convinced many fans and experts that Britain had found its next frontrunning F1 driver to follow in the wheeltracks of such as Damon Hill and David Coulthard.

It didn’t work out that way, of course, but it meant a truly good guy and a great driver arrived here in the Champ Car World Series in 2004, and he rapidly took off his training wheels. After several giant-killing performances for the little Conquest outfit during his rookie season, he was snapped up by the RuSPORT team which although well funded was as new to this top level of U.S. open-wheel racing as its two drivers, Wilson and AJ Allmendinger.

In my then-role as CCWS reporter for British publication Autosport, I had to bug JWil on a frequent basis, as he was the UK’s leading light in the series, and it honestly took him a while to get used to the attention. ‘Three things I learned this weekend, by Justin Wilson’ was a necessary part of my regular race reports, and somehow he always found something to say. Describing a particularly lurid experience on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway back in ’04, one of his comments was, “Never drive a car that only wants to turn right on a track that only has left turns.” That was typical of the understated dry humor we all came to love about Justin.

His self-deprecation and honesty were admirable traits, too. After he spun while trying to warm up his tires before a restart while leading the 2005 Edmonton race, I asked whether he’d accidentally hit the push-to-pass boost button on the steering-wheel. I’d noticed the supposedly tell-tale red light flashing on the back of the car as he slewed from side to side, and thought that may be an explanation for one of his admirably rare errors.

“No, I just lost it, simple as that”, he responded. There was a pause, then he added with a smile: “Don’t make me out to be even more of a wanker than I was!”

His wins at Toronto and Mexico City (BELOW) seemed to promise great things for 2006, but RuSPORT was a two-year-old CCWS team up against Newman/Haas Racing, one of the greatest teams in the history of Indy car racing. It was hardly a fair fight. Yet every time Wilson gave his best and his sheer consistency, pace and a victory – the result of pressuring NHR’s Sebastien Bourdais into a rare mistake – made Justin runner-up in the Champ Car World Series that year. Appropriately, too, that win came at Edmonton. Yet afterward he was grinning sheepishly. “At least I made my mistake after the checkered flag this time. I did too many victory donuts and there was so much smoke I didn’t know which way I was pointing, so I had to just stop and get out of the car! Seriously, I was pretending I’d run out of fuel and was playing to the crowd, but actually I was just lost and blind…”


 

It was typical of Wilson’s bad luck that when he finally folded his giraffe-like frame into a full-time Newman/Haas seat in 2008, it came just as Champ Car folded into IndyCar and NHR found itself at base camp with the IRL Dallara. But that made it all the more gratifying when Justin scored the team’s final win in Detroit and gave a dying Paul Newman cause to grin with delight. No less gratifying was seeing Justin score the first ever win for Dale Coyne Racing at Watkins Glen in 2009 (ABOVE), after the team’s quarter century of trying in vain. Following that up with a first oval win three years later at Texas Motor Speedway was what he, Dale and his engineer and friend Bill Pappas deserved. But in a way, the Wilson/Coyne campaign of 2013 was even more impressive, despite being winless. To finish sixth in the final championship standings for Coyne, ahead of several entries from Penske, Ganassi and Andretti, proved what we always knew about Justin’s all-’round ability.

That’s why there’s no harm in putting aside the record books and instead listening to his peers, because they understood better than most the context and situations in which JWil performed miracles. The fact that the last four IndyCar champions – Will Power, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Dario Franchitti – held him in such high regard is the true measure of his brilliance. Just a couple of months ago, Power told me: “It’s always surprised me that Justin never got a chance like I did [with Penske], because in a top team, he’d have been winning a lot of races and fighting for championships, no question.” Will’s thoughts on the man RuSPORT had nicknamed “Badass” were echoed by others, and regularly so. It’s one of many reasons why Justin’s similarly charming brother Stefan (BELOW, Marshall Pruett photo) always took such pride in him.

That and Justin’s personality, his ability to play problems down. After his pelvic injury sustained in a crash at Fontana in 2013, Justin was forced to stay in hospital overnight here in SoCal. I texted him the day after to see how he was doing. “I’m fine. Your man Marshall just visited and left me with a ton of chocolate and I didn’t even have to get out of bed. It’s a good life!” Note, no mention of pain or even discomfort; just a trivializing of his predicament.

However much I rated Justin in the top echelon of IndyCar drivers of his era, it’s Justin The Man that I admired even more. I’m aware that’s a cliché phrase to include in a tribute, but I can only promise you my sentiments are as genuine as the big man himself. That’s why I so often turned to him for a rational driver point of view on the burning matters of the week. That’s why I appreciated how much he looked at the sport from a fan’s point of view (sadly we’ll never get to finish our “improving IndyCar’s TV package” story). That’s why he provided the balanced perspective whenever there was a dispute, be it driver vs. driver, drivers vs. series, series vs. journalists, fans vs. series… whatever. Just as he had the mental capacity to think while racing on the limit, so Justin also had the ability to ignore his own interests and look at what was best for the sport as a whole. That’s a rare quality among drivers, and it led me to hope that one day he’d take a senior position within IndyCar.

 


 

God, there really are too many anecdotes to relate. Being privileged enough to sit alongside him as he redefined the handling limits of a minivan through the outskirts of Denver was fun. His response to my last-minute invitation to test a McLaren 12C for RACER on Fontana’s road course was impressive in every regard. Within a minute he was on the phone, not to ask how much we’d pay him but whether I could book the hotel room while he booked the flight. Then there was the party about 10 years ago where I played one of his requests on the piano – ‘The Scientist’ by Coldplay – and he tried to sing along…The world certainly lost a great man and a great driver today but not, I assure you, Britain’s answer to Nat King Cole.

I’ll miss the possibility of seeing Justin and beloved wife Julia as a couple (ABOVE with baby Jane at Detroit in ’08). Together they remained simultaneously grounded yet with an uplifting spirit – a combination that can only come from those who keep things in good perspective. They took nothing for granted, instead deriving pleasure from parenting their wonderful daughters and living in a scenically beautiful part of Colorado. They were able to shrug off disappointments and move on, facing the world with a genuine zest. Their outlook put me in mind of a pair of students half their age, taking a gap year from university and enjoying their adventures together across the States. Experience never dulled their enthusiasm for life.

I’ll also miss Justin’s gentle teasing humor. Earlier this season, I emailed him a final draft of a feature we’d done together and asked if he’d thought of anything else he might like to include. He sent it back giving the basic OK, added a couple of extra statements, and then pointed out a grammatical error in one of my linking paragraphs. Simultaneously my cellphone chimed. “You should feel embarrassed, by the way,” said his text. While I was still pondering this, a follow-up arrived. “You write for a living and you’ve just had a typo corrected by a dyslexic.”

Justin’s genuinely polite manner was legendary and meant he was able to communicate to fans of all ages while overcoming his natural shyness with strangers. He was deeply valued by HPD not only for his technical feedback but also his work with Honda charities. And down the years, his various sponsors adored Justin for his driving on track and personality off it. It’s gratifying to know that quiet ambassadorial and professional essence of Justin Wilson shone through in an environment where petulance and brattishness can so often surface. A true man among boys, it’s little wonder so many of his rivals figuratively as well as literally looked up to Wilson.

I can only guess at the grief currently afflicting Justin’s parents, wife, brother, children and their extended family. He grew very close to some of his investors, the good folk who put their own money into Justin Wilson PLC to help fund his nascent career, and they became welcome visitors to the paddock. No surprise, either, that they were cut from the same cloth as their hero – quiet, solid and fervent.

In light of all those good people now experiencing perhaps the worst period of their lives, I’m aware this article will come across as self-indulgent. I mean, who the hell am I? Just one of thousands of people who were lucky enough to have Justin as a regular point of contact and source of sanity. My only defense is that he simply impressed me so much. Justin was always worth watching through a challenging corner on track, because of his bravery and astounding car control. Justin was someone I was always happy to see or hear from, because I knew his insights would contain so much commonsense and humor. And Justin was the kind of man I hope my 12-year-old son becomes – modest, kind, polite, funny, respectable, respectful – and brilliant at his job.

Almost every memory I have of Justin, whether personal or merely observational, makes me smile, and that will surely provide solace soon. But for now, it just breaks my heart knowing that I won’t see my phone light up with his number and then hear that soft Yorkshire accent with its increasingly American vocabulary making some modest and stoical comment like, “Thanks for the story, but you didn’t have to write that. I’m fine.”

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