Canada’s Jeremy Dale has had a motorsports career spanning more than 30 years as a driver, race series director, race team president (BELOW, courtesy of JDX Racing), race team owner and TV commentator. As the president of the RuSPORT Champ Car team, he was among the first to recognize Justin Wilson’s prodigious talents, and so we asked him for his thoughts about the late IndyCar star. -Ed.
How is it possible that I am writing this? That’s all I can think of. How is it possible? This was never in the plan. The plan was bike riding, BBQs, iRacing, having a few beers and maybe some talk of racing from time to time. But not this. Anything but this.
So here we are, having lost a good friend, a person that was the embodiment of everything we all aspire to be. Honest, generous, considerate, principled, ethical, trustworthy, courteous… I could go on and on. Most importantly, Justin Wilson was never defined by what he did, he was defined by who he was, and at the top of that list, he was a husband and a father – a very dedicated and devoted one.
RACER called me last week and asked if I would put some words together and talk about Justin. I immediately agreed, and just as quickly my thoughts turned to finding the best way to do this. What I settled on was taking a snapshot from Justin’s RuSPORT years (2005-’07) and including some of the key players inside the team during that time. I did this because, as President of RuSPORT, I had a certain relationship and interaction with Justin that and I’m honored to say we went on to be good friends and most recently we had partnered on a team running in the Formula Lites series, along with other things we were working on as well. But the relationships within a team that a driver creates with his engineer, teammate, team owner, etc are all unique, and each one gives you an insight into the man.
I’m gonna crush you – not
Justin’s first teammate at RuSPORT, AJ Allmendinger, had come through the Barber Dodge Pro Series in 2001-’02 and we hired at RuSPORT for our first year, 2003. He quite impressively won the Toyota Atlantic Championship in his first year (RIGHT), which forced us to take a look at accelerating our plan to move up from that series. We looked carefully at the Indy Racing League before deciding on Champ Car, initially with the plan to run a single car for AJ. But just six weeks prior to the start of the 2004 season, Michel Jourdain, who’d just finished third in the CART championship, was out of a drive and on the market, and so we signed him.
AJ did an incredible job that first season and by about the sixth race, he was the dominant driver within our team. At season’s end he was sixth in points with two podiums to his name. And four of the top-six cars in points had been from Newman/Haas Racing and Forsythe Racing – both championship-winning, powerhouse teams – so we felt pretty good about what we had achieved in year one, as did AJ. But we decided we had to find someone who would push AJ and the team harder, and we tested Justin in November of 2004 on the road course at Firebird Raceway in Phoenix.
The whole team was there, including AJ, and I distinctly remember (driver coach) Barry Waddell and I looking at each other after watching Justin drive the car and saying “Oh boy, this is gonna stir things up…” And AJ knew it as well. While RuSPORT was not technically a team built for/around AJ, after 2003-’04, he had made it that way.
So into the 2005 season we stormed with a season of confidence under our belt and a new driver, who we knew was fast – and that’s about all we knew. Putting aside the third race of the year at Milwaukee (it took a while to get Justin comfortable on ovals – but AJ had his first oval podium with a very solid drive to P2), Justin was on pole for round four in Portland (his first and our first – plus AJ was P2). He led the race going away, but just prior to halfway the oil pump broke and our potential first race win was gone.
The next round was Cleveland, and AJ stepped up with a strong P2 finish – so things were clearly starting to click. On we went to Toronto, where Justin missed pole by 0.002sec, but went on to win his (and our) first major open-wheel race. We were all elated, especially Justin – and especially after the heartbreak at Portland. Toronto was also the debut of our sponsor CDW, and that win, along with their introduction to JW, was a major reason they decided to continue on with RuSPORT.
However, it was obviously very tough on AJ, as here was the team that had grown up around him getting its first win from the new guy. We all knew and understood the dynamic well, and everyone was walking that delicate line very carefully – praising Justin for his incredible result and success and offering continued support to AJ for the talent and ability we knew was there. It was tricky.
One week later we found ourselves in Edmonton for a new event on the Champ Car schedule at Edmonton, a tricky airport track. The RuSPORT engineering team really hit the nail on the head and our cars were the class of the field, with AJ and Justin at or near the front in all sessions and AJ securing his first Champ Car pole. The team was on a real high after this run of performances, and the race went very well, with AJ leading most of the way, only giving up the lead to Justin once on a pit stop rotation.
With about 12 laps to go, with us still running 1-2 and reigning champion Bourdais almost half a minute behind, a full-course caution for a car that had crashed erased our lead, and on the lap heading to the restart, Justin spun! A very rare mistake, but it wasn’t as if he was going to challenge for the win, as AJ had been the class of the field all day. AJ got a solid restart, but then made a very small mistake at Turn 8 and Bourdais got past. What looked like a certain 1-2 for RuSPORT turned into a 1-2 for Newman-Haas, with AJ in P14 and JW fighting his way back to fourth! (He always had a way of working magic in the closing laps.)
Needless to say we were all crushed and nobody more than AJ who was simply inconsolable. This is where Justin’s character bubbled right to the top, as he could clearly see what was happening and he needed to jump in. What did he do? He got the entire team together and apologized for not only his mistake, but essentially took responsibility for AJ not winning due to AJ losing his wingman. He took it all! “If I was there, AJ would have been fine… It’s my fault.”
Most guys do in that same situation would have said something along the lines of, “His mistake was bigger than mine, therefore shine the spotlight on him and conveniently forget about my mistake.” Not Justin – he always took the tougher path, the one that shared responsibility and accountability.
This was one of a number of times Justin could have used the circumstances to make the team his own, and in classic Formula 1 style, crush his teammate. AJ will tell you that Justin had that opportunity on multiple occasions and never took it. On the contrary, he used each one of them as a way to help AJ, which in the long term would strengthen the team – which of course would help JW. That first day in Phoenix when Barry and I watched Justin drive our car, that’s what we were worried about – he’s going to come in and turn the team upside down and make it his own, and there’s not a damn thing AJ can do about it. In reality, it was nothing like that – it was exactly the opposite, and in doing so, he taught all of us how to be better teammates.
Mike Talbott (now on the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing engineering team which has become a championship contender) was Justin’s race engineer at RuSPORT in 2007, our last year. We had hired Mike over from Newman/Haas as an assistant race engineer for the 2006 season, and he had done a very solid job (we finished P2 in the championship to Bourdais), but 2007 would be very different. At the close of the 2006 season, team owner Carl Russo had sold the team (this is not the time or place to delve into this topic…), and we went from a proper 50-person, two-car squad to a 15-person one-car effort.
2007 was a contract year for Justin and under the circumstances, it took some persuasion to convince him to stay. His engineer for the 2005-’06 seasons (Todd Malloy) had moved on, and our budget didn’t allow us to go out and replace Todd (a very good and proven engineer) with a brand name guy, so our best option was to move Mike up from his assistant role. This may sound perfectly logical, but I assure you, the failure rate on that move is pretty high. The pressure on these guys (and ladies) is immense and not unlike the load carried by drivers. It’s one reason that the right combination of engineer/driver can be so potent, as they live day to day shouldering very similar responsibilities, and therefore (the good ones) have great empathy for each other. When they don’t, they fail – plain and simple – because it just turns into the blame game. Mike was a risk and Justin knew it – and we all knew it could be an even bigger risk because all the teams were getting a new car for the 2007 season, the Panoz DP01.
So off we go to test the new car and there are all sorts of issues. RuSPORT circa 2004-’06 had the resources to deal with whatever got thrown at us, but RuSPORT circa 2007 didn’t. It was a tough fight and at times we felt pretty overwhelmed by Newman/Haas, who had 2004-06 champion Bourdais, plus an engineering team led by the very capable Craig Hampson (who Justin worked with this year at Andretti Autosport). To hear Mike describe it: “The relationship between driver and engineer is unique. Justin deserved an experienced, championship winning engineer, but once the decision was made he never wavered in doing his best to make it a successful partnership. The season didn’t start well at all. We struggled to get a handle on the new car early, but Justin would often carry the car on talent alone producing results better than the setup. The perfect example of this was Portland, when he qualified on pole in the wet. He was so good in the wet! Despite our struggles, Justin kept a positive attitude and kept everyone on the team motivated and working hard to improve”.
Any driver that has success must have good leadership qualities and Justin had it in spades. But he was not one of those Mel Gibson/Braveheart types of leaders – he was the strong, silent type, letting his actions do most of the talking. Being quite the introvert, he had to find his own way to lead and inspire, and he did.
Mike said: “I knew how lucky I was to be given the opportunity to be Justin’s engineer in 2007: he had already proven himself a winner. I knew from the previous season at RuSPORT that he never gave up and was going to work harder than anyone else. I still remember Houston in 2006. The track was so bumpy and our cars were not good. Justin somehow managed to finish fifth, while others basically gave up. Justin came in with bloody hands from wrestling the car for 96 laps. I’ll never forget San Jose 2007. We had been OK in practice, but not great. We made some changes for qualifying and went out for the short warm up before qualifying. I think we were mid pack and I was a little worried, but when Justin hopped out of the car he said, ‘We’re OK, Mike’ and gave a sly little smile. He then proceeded to stick it on pole.”
“We’re OK Mike” is classic Justin Wilson. Understated, but confident. One job a driver has in leading is to convince the team that, metaphorically, you are worth walking over hot coals for. Justin was not only that guy, but you also knew he would be there with you, hand-in-hand, walking on hot coals together. He never expected anything from anyone that he wasn’t ready to do himself. That is true leadership.
What does putt-putt golf have to do with big-time pro racing?
Good question. RuSPORT from its beginning in 2003 was unique, in that we had a driver coach on staff full time. (not to go too deeply down this rabbit hole, but name any other high level sport that doesn’t use coaching…? But racers have been so arrogantly opposed to coaching for so long – I just don’t get it….). Barry Waddell was that man, and after 15 years exclusively working for Skip Barber, we convinced him to move to Colorado and work full time with RuSPORT. It was a natural fit, as Barry was one of the guys that recognized AJ’s talent at SBRS early on and helped him every step of the way. Barry’s credentials were strong enough without the AJ relationship – but the two of them together would be 1+1=3 – and that proved itself out with our 2003 Atlantic championship win.
2004 went well enough, but it was a steep learning curve for everybody (I remember our primary goal at the first race of the 2004 season was “don’t set anyone or anything on fire!”). Barry and AJ worked very closely together on and off the racetrack, and that guidance was valuable for AJ, culminating in a solid first season and the aforementioned Rookie of the Year honors. The along comes Justin Wilson….
Barry didn’t know Justin and Justin didn’t know Barry, and JW had come from the F1 “we know better” background. Couple that with the fact that Barry was in many ways AJ’s coach, and as Justin you’d have no problem jumping to the conclusion that “I’m the outsider.” But Justin was different – and maybe it helped that he had been an instructor/coach at Palmer Sport in the UK – but he was very open to embracing the RuSPORT structure, even if that meant working with AJ’s coach. It was classic JWil – if we all pull on the same set of oars, the boat’s going to go faster.
Before I answer the putt-putt question, I’m going to jump all the way ahead to 2015 – and I can tell you that Justin and Barry had become the closest of friends in the past 10 years. It was a great friendship that not only included all the “guy” things they did together here in Colorado (like bike riding and iRacing), but their families had also grown to be very close, with Julia and Stacey building a very strong and close non-racing relationship. When Justin needed a bit of parenting advice, it didn’t hurt that Barry had two of his own – and everyone knows Stacey as the “baby whisperer”, so her help and support came in handy on countless occasions. They had what we all hope a meaningful friendship will have, mutual respect and a quiet comfort in each other. It was fun to watch it evolve over the years.
So, back to putt-putt: Barry always understood that within a team, the relationship between teammates was critical. It’s a fine balance to get right and one you must work at. In the Atlantic days (prior to Justin’s arrival at RuSPORT) AJ and Barry used to go putt-putt mini golfing on the Thursday night leading into the race weekends. It was good way to kill a little time after dinner and relax a bit, and keep back the pressures of the race weekend. Barry was not a big mini putt guy, but AJ really enjoyed it – and was pretty good – so Barry embraced it. And it seemed to work, as AJ had a great season in 2003.
So it’s 2005 and here’s Justin Wilson joining RuSPORT – and Barry knows he has to get to work on building a strong relationship between teammates (it’s not like they didn’t know each other, in fact they had raced against each other throughout the 2004 season in Champ Car when JW was with Conquest Racing). So Barry suggests a mini putt golf game, and Justin says, “what’s mini putt?” So off they go – and like the rest of us, you’re at first thinking, why the hell are they doing this? It’s stupid. They’re Champ Car drivers, not teenagers out on a date.
But Justin quickly bought in to what Barry was up to – and that was using this seemingly light-hearted, simple game as a way to create a competitive balance between the two drivers. Make no mistake, as these matches evolved, the level of intensity and competition was elevated to about as high a level as you can take a putt-putt game – but Barry never let it get out of control or mean spirited. I mean it’s friggin mini golf, so how seriously are you going to take it? But it really worked, and it became a regular activity throughout their time together. In fact, it continued on to all the endurance races they did together at Mike Shank Racing, including their Daytona 24 hour win of 2012. Simple things like this have a way of building stronger and more respectful relationships between people, and that is something Justin always valued and appreciated.
Don’t be misled by the polite introvert
In my case, I was delighted to have Justin join our team in 2005. I had watched him in ’04 drive the wheels off the Conquest car, and despite no podiums and his highest finish all year being a fourth at Mexico City, it was clear he was very very good. In terms of driving the car, he was right on top of things from the very first RuSPORT test, and never let up. But I dealt with him much more out of the car, and that was quite a challenge – and not in the way you might think. You see, he was very introverted – especially back then. And he was also very polite, so never the type to come into your office and demand this or insist on that. It just wasn’t how he interacted with people.
But then, it was very easy to let your perception of him fool you into thinking he either didn’t care, or was not very passionate – because he cared as much as anyone and he was equally as passionate as anyone – and usually more so. It took me a while to figure it all out, but once I did, you could not ask for a better individual to deal with. Go back to paragraph two (honest, generous, considerate, principled, ethical, trustworthy, courteous, etc.) and you get the picture. Never any BS, just the truth, his unbiased opinion, usually a very realistic and reasonable suggestion as to how to fix the problem and a “thanks for taking the time” finish. What more could you ask for than that – just so straightforward.
While I had started out with this great respect for his driving, I very quickly developed an equally great respect for his approach and ability in how he managed relationships and interactions with people – and those two together made him one in a million.
I’m going to give the final word – and it’s one word – to RuSPORT founder and team owner Carl Russo (RIGHT, with Wilson after winning at Toronto in 2005). That word is Graceful.
One of the first calls I received last Sunday was from Carl, who was very concerned about Justin. Carl’s involvement in motorsport has been exactly 0% since selling the team at the end of the 2006 season, but that does not mean he hasn’t paid attention – on the contrary. Carl was the person that pushed the hardest for us to take a hard look at Justin after the 2004 season, because he had seen something very special. So keeping track of Justin over the years was a pretty natural thing to do.
We talked later in the week and I told him I had been asked to write something for RACER, and almost instinctively he just blurted out the word….
“Graceful – that’s the single word I use to describe Justin.” And as I thought about it, he started to describe it. If you watched him drive, it was graceful – but better than that, when you watched him pass other cars, that was truly graceful. His data traces on the page were graceful and his communication skills and personal interactions were all graceful.
And the more I thought about it, Carl was right – Justin Wilson was one of the most graceful human beings I have ever known. I am so honored to have known him, worked with him, laughed with him and called him my friend. I will forever keep him in my heart.