A year without the big man: such a strange thing to contemplate. If the quality of a person’s life is measured by how much they are missed, Justin Wilson made one hell of an impact during his 37 years.
His loss at Pocono on August 24, 2015 is still fresh for most that were close with him. I was tempted to write “are close with him” – in the present tense – because there’s permanence to Wilson’s influence. There’s the expected feelings of loss and sorrow for some, but there’s also a central and connecting thread for others. Of all the things that stand out after a year, that’s the big revelation: the enduring effect Justin continues to have on people.
Closer to home on this pending anniversary, his brother Stefan is in Monterey right now working with Acura, his parents are at home in England, and Justin’s wife Julia sent an email last week to a small group of friends to say she’s going to grab their young daughters Jane and Jess and get as far away from the world as possible as IndyCar makes its return to Pocono this weekend.
Unsure what to write, but certain that I didn’t want to avoid the subject altogether, I asked some of Justin’s best friends, confidants, and colleagues to share their thoughts and journeys over the past year. Maybe, collectively, somewhere within their words, more connections to the big man can be found.
MATT CLEARY was Wilson’s personal PR man for many years, and also looks after the Michael Shank Racing team where Wilson won the Rolex 24 At Daytona in 2012. Cleary has represented the Wilson family as well since Pocono, and from his time as Justin’s voice to fans and supporters, Matt was privileged to earn his trust and friendship.
“Largely from his constant athletic training, Justin was always keen about gear and having the latest tech. He loved Strava, was a very clever user of Evernote (to help both organize himself around his dyslexia, as well as to help him with his racecar setup notes), and always wanted his gear to be able to do more, whether that was his phone or his bike.
“Once when we were waiting for a qualifying session, he mentioned that he’d be getting a carry-on suitcase that had new features like phone chargers and GPS tracking. I’d also just ordered one that was in development as a Kickstarter project, so we immediately began comparing the different suitcases that we were getting.
“Unfortunately, it became clear that the one I had put money on was taking forever. So instead of talking about interior capacity and how many phones they could charge, we were soon comparing delivery dates.
“He’d tease me – ‘You get that carry-on yet?’ when I’d see him at the track, and of course, I hadn’t.
“The delays for the suitcase were so long that when a big cardboard box arrived on my doorstep a few weeks ago, I had no idea what it was that I was unpacking. When I saw that it was my version of the high-tech carry-on, it flooded back to me and I just lost it.
“But having one little memory like that just reminds me that there are thousands of those kinds of memories that his family had with him, and how incredibly challenging it has to be for the girls without having Justin in their lives. He was so incredibly dedicated as a dad and husband, and I can’t even begin to imagine their loss.
“It is easy to grieve and think about what we miss about him, but I’ve been trying to coach myself to spend more time trying to do things that he’d have done. Just in random situations – usually the more challenging the better – it’s always a kind of an inner boost to think of his grace, his kindness, and his huge smile. It always makes me grateful that I got to learn how to be a better person from him.”
BILL PAPPAS and Wilson formed a powerful combination as driver and engineer (above). Pappas, who found Victory Lane on multiple occasions with Wilson at Dale Coyne Racing, joined the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2016 and became a leader in its search for new safety technologies.
“Whether we were working together or he was at another team, we were very close and always spoke with each other. I think about how he handled himself an awful lot. He was an absolute professional on and off the racetrack, and he and I talked a lot about where the series was heading and what needed to be changed to improve a sport we were both incredibly passionate about. I think that’s led me to where I am now.
“I didn’t go looking for this job with IndyCar; it’s like it came looking for me. I was thinking maybe this is what I need to be doing in light of what happened to Justin. He had such a profound impact on me. Every time we go to the racetrack, I think about him. I’m sitting back and asking questions about what Justin would have thought about something we’re looking at. He was a very practical guy, and I think that’s what the series needs. I’m just trying to fulfill his ideals and directions through this job with IndyCar.”
BARRY WADDELL worked with Wilson in Champ Car, IndyCar, and in sportscars as a spotter and coach, and thanks to living close to each other in Colorado, the two were inseparable. Waddell’s brother Michael partnered with Justin to form the USWAG sock and apparel company (pictured), and Barry can be found in numerous paddocks bringing wisdom to his clients.
“When it happened a mutual friend of mine and Justin’s sent me a quote. He said, ‘You’ll always be diminished by this, and you will never recover 100 percent. But you will carry on because that is what he wanted you to do, and that is what we do.’ He signed it, ‘semper fortis‘ – always strong.
“That has always crystallized exactly how I felt about it. I still feel diminished by it. I still feel the absence. And I believe I won’t ever 100 percent be over it. But you carry on.
“At the end of the day, with Stefan, and my son, I see positive aspects of how they used his mentorship and use his life in how they conduct themselves and handle themselves. It makes you realize how much he has impacted people.
“To this day, I rarely go to the racetrack where you don’t run into someone who says they met him once and felt like they made a new friend, and that’s all you needed to know. It’s happened 1000 times, right?
“And it has to be said that it’s all fine and good for me to talk about how much it has affected me and my family, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing compared how much more that void in his family’s life is being felt. As much as we remember him, Juls and the girls are still here and surviving. We can’t forget them.”
MICHAEL SHANK and Wilson were extremely close, and with Wilson’s ties to Honda, Shank’s current and future alliance with the brand can be attributed to the big man’s involvement.
“It was over his birthday weekend when something randomly triggered; something good. And it triggered a flood of stuff. I had to clear my voicemail out because it was full on my iPhone. I’m clearing and clearing and clearing and, boom, it came to the last time Justin left me a voicemail. That was interesting. I didn’t get the guts up to push the button and listen to it until I got home from Road America. That was tough.
“The other thing someone said to me was, ‘Have you checked your texts for Justin? Check the texts out.’ I hadn’t touched the texts. So it was like he was still here. I hit Justin’s name, which is still on my phone, and all the texts from all the years are all right there. It was like he was standing right next to me. It was a powerful experience.
“There are some things that are going to come next year that he would’ve been a big part of. That’s tough, because he was actually helping me with it. Certainly, as time clicks on, let’s not forget he was a very good racecar driver too, and very smart and cool and never got rattled. All of those things. So we are going to miss him technically, too.
“Since this has all happened I’ve tried to figure out if there’s a way we can help Stefan (pictured, foreground) and what he wants to do. I would be lying to say I wasn’t extremely concerned about the Indy 500 this year with him in it. Which is kind of weird to say. I was just thinking, ‘Let’s just not have anything go wrong’ the whole time. Fortunately, he had a mostly good race. All that flashes in front of my eyes.
“And then the last part of that, and this is really important, is doing something to get some protection for these guys in the cars. If there’s something that we can do to make the open cockpits a bit safer, we should be doing it so we don’t keep burying friends. I keep hearing about it, and as long as it is being worked on, that’s the most important thing in my opinion.”
AJ ALLMENDINGER teamed with Wilson in Champ Car as a rookie, benefitted from Justin’s considerable experience, and shared the winning MSR car with him at the 2012 Rolex 24 (pictured, top).
“I feel like nothing was learned about it. We haven’t made any improvements. I’m somewhat hurt by that in the sense that there isn’t talk about it. When it comes to it, life just sucks and there’s good moments and bad moments. There are certain moments that crop up into my mind sometimes where I was doing OK, and then the [anniversary] date of the race of the Rolex … That was a couple of months after. Race day at Rolex, it sucked. It hit me then. It’s not good, I wish he was here to talk to. I wish I could bounce ideas off him.
“I still look back even after a year and it hurts, the fact that we somewhat lived in two different worlds – he’s in IndyCar, I’m in NASCAR – [and] your paths don’t cross that much. You get so caught up in your own world sometimes. I probably didn’t get a chance to talk to him as much as I should have talked to him. Then you don’t realize it until he’s gone.
“So it’s one of those things that, there’s nothing good about it. I miss him every day. Some days, maybe [it] just creeps up into my mind, just for a second. The next day, it may be there all day. It’s not fun. I can’t believe it’s already been a year.
“He was one of my best friends. It’s the first time I’ve had to deal with losing someone like that. I think that’s what makes it hard, too, is it’s always at the forefront of your thoughts because you see it a lot. People post things about him every day on social media, and it’s all positive stuff, but you’re also always reminded about what happened. It’s not like you want to forget, but you don’t have any distance from it. He was such a special person. It just sucks. It does. And I don’t know what else to say.”
MICHAEL CANNON was Wilson’s IndyCar engineer for his last full-season in 2014 with the Dale Coyne Racing team. Cannon, who also engineered Allmendinger in Champ Car, found great delight in getting to know the man behind the immense talent.
“He was a big kid and he cast a mighty big shadow. It’s just that much more poignant having just lost Bryan Clauson too. The whole thing is rather depressing. The both of them; terrific people. People think they know Justin from interviews on TV, etc. He was even more gracious in private. People like that are very few and far between. This is a very selfish sport and he was a very selfless guy. That’s what we lost.”
OZZ NEGRI and Wilson were like brothers – one born in Brazil, the other in England. Speed, warmth, grace, and optimism made the two a perfect fit at MSR.
“I remember last year–everything–like it was yesterday. It is complicated. At least myself, and obviously AJ is the same deal, we used to count the days to Daytona for the 24 so we could all be together. Those days were intense, a lot of bonding. It was such high energy; man it is hard to explain to you what it was.
“Besides that, since he’s gone, the funny thing is I have been texting a lot more with AJ. It is one of those deals. It changed in this regard. This is exactly the end of the conversations: ‘I love you brother,’ with AJ, because sometimes we take it for granted and now we don’t have the big guy to share with.
“I am a very spiritual person. Very, very often I think of him. He came here, did his part, with his family, his friends and stamped his mark here on earth. And he is in a pretty cool, nice place up there.”
RYAN HUNTER-REAY was a longtime admirer of Wilson before he joined the Andretti Autosport team for a partial schedule in 2015 (pictured, top). Together, they helped the team and Honda to reach a newfound level of competitiveness.
“His passing left a huge void in many areas, but as a fellow driver and a father, friend, husband, these things, we had a lot in common. We’ve been racing together since 2004 in Champ Car, and he was one of my really good friends, one of those guys you just respected so much on and off the racetrack. Anytime I got to go wheel to wheel to him was a pleasure. He was always clean.
“And in many ways, he was inspirational on the professional side for me. Working with him, and some of the setups he went with and was willing to try on the fly at Indy and Pocono, was pretty eye-opening.
“I think all the IndyCar drivers looked up to him as a leader. The IndyCar Drivers Association, which he was a leader of, was better for having him. He was always pushing for that respect and camaraderie in the group because we race 230 miles an hour wheel to wheel. He was our leader. Getting his viewpoints on life was always a highlight for me. If there was a topic to be discussed of safety, performance, whatever it was, you want his opinion in the mix because it was so highly valued.
“You still feel the void. Every day, every weekend, catching up with him and seeing his big smile after sessions.”
STEFAN WILSON went from being Justin’s little brother to a rock for his family, became a husband, made his first start at the Indy 500, and is looking to move from Indianapolis to Colorado to be close to Julia and the girls following the accident. He lost his best friend at Pocono, yet has continued to stand and deliver for those around him whenever they are in need. There’s no question Justin would be fiercely proud of Stef since August 24, 2015.
“I try to put a brave face on it every opportunity I can. That’s what Justin would want me to do. But it has still been really tough. Everything in life, every time that you are in a place or doing something where you have a memory of being with Justin, you have to stop for a second because it hits you or it reminds you of Justin and reminds you that he is not here.
“Then after that you pick yourself up and keep moving forward. That’s how it has been the last 12 months. There have been a lot of first-time experiences without Justin. Even the first time I went on iRacing, probably about five months after [Pocono]. I just have so many memories of racing right there, in the same room as him, trading fastest laps and just enjoying that competition with each other. Or being 1000 miles away on the same sim session going wheel to wheel. I have so many great memories of that simulator software. He was the one that introduced me to it. Playing it without him isn’t normal.
“I think wanting to race in the 500 and having that goal was something that really helped me focus during those terrible time last year. I think it helped me pull myself out of being in a bad place. The focus helped [protect] me from breaking down. The determination to be at Indy was something that helped me in the grieving process.
“After May, after I did the 500 (pictured), there was a week where I couldn’t handle it; it really hit me then. I allowed myself to grieve again, almost. There was a positive there where I was able to partner with the Indiana Donor Network and I got to learn a lot about the donation process and see how Justin really helped those five people who received his organs. When I meet the donor families and do something similar, it feels like you can relate to those people and they can relate to you.
“Also when you meet with recipient families and you hear their story and see how much adversity they’ve had in their life … I can’t imagine all the trouble they’ve gone through in their lives, having all the health issues and how that disrupts your life. Having to go and get treatment because your organs are failing. And then you get on a national waitlist and you are waiting. It makes you feel lucky for your health, and that no one in my family has had an issue like that.
“At some point it really was what Justin was able to do for those five families and it makes me admire him so much more for his decision that he made. And [to] continue to work with IDN and raise awareness for the cause is a legacy that started with him.
“Family is everything, which is why we’re looking to move closer to Juls. I think the thing I miss the most about Justin is that feeling of someone I can always rely on and just always had my back. That was Justin. I don’t easily trust people and having Justin there, he was the person I trusted most in my whole life. Just always been there for me and always looking out for me. Now that he is gone, I want to be able to repay that. I need to be there and I want to be there for his kids and look out for them, and pay it back to Justin.
“I also have to say, in May, seeing how people were still thinking about Justin, how many people I saw wearing a Justin Wilson shirt and the stories they told me, I wanted to make sure they know it was noticed and I really appreciate it. It does make a huge difference to let us know how much he continues to mean to people, and that it’s not just us that are hurting and missing him. It seems like a lot of people miss him.”
For those who might be interested, a revamped WilsonChildrensFund.com donation site was launched this week to continue providing support for Justin’s wife and daughters.