As the five-year mark of Justin Wilson’s loss approached, Stefan Wilson listened patiently as I shared a few ideas on stories that would celebrate his older brother’s life. His reactions, subtle and kind, suggested that a better direction might be explored.
“The thing I’ve been trying to do is think of all the stories I can for Justin’s daughters, even the silly little ones, and share them with Jane and Jess, because they were so young when he was taken from us,” Wilson said. “Jane was maybe seven, and Jess was three or four, so they just didn’t have a lot of time to make memories of their own with their dad. So I’ve been trying to fill that in with stories for Justin’s girls.”
Wilson offered a blessing with his closing sentence. It was the perfect theme to pay tribute to the Briton, killed in that August 24, 2015 crash at Pocono. By capturing tales from Justin’s many friends for his daughters to read at some point in the future when they’re old enough to process the full measure of the man, maybe these stories—and more we’ll document with other friends in the coming years—will paint a wider portrait of their father.
Some stories are more colorful than others, and whether they’re deep, fun, or mischievous, each anecdote presents a cherished memory or insight into Wilson’s character and life. And more than a few involve Wilson’s legendary tolerance for alcohol, which came at the expense of those who dared visit the pub with the big man.
Together, for the five-year installment, we have both of Justin’s Formula 1 teammates, an engineer, an IndyCar teammate, a sports car team owner, an IndyCar rival, and a driver coach who’ve conjured stories we all might enjoy when remembering Wilson.
Dario Franchitti, on Justin’s overlooked duality
“I think some people, some team owners, saw his kindness and smiles as a sign of weakness in the early days, not realizing that when he was in the car, he was a different person; he was this cold-eyed assassin. The last person you wanted to look in your mirrors and see was that helmet design of Justin’s. It was ‘uh-oh’ if you did.
“Drivers are pretty one-dimensional people, right? I was one for a long time. We’re pretty one-dimensional people. He wasn’t. I think he was one of the most well-rounded people of all the drivers. He had that great life balance, kind of like Scott Dixon, but Justin really took it to another degree with how he made his career about family, but switching it back on and being that assassin in the car. I don’t think enough people appreciated both sides of him.”
Barry Waddell, Justin’s close ally and driver coach at the RuSport Champ Car team
“The European driver’s mindset, which is loosely based on the ‘destroy your teammate at all times’ approach, was something he could have come over here with. It’s pretty common with how young drivers are brought up by European teams, where they believed you will improve based on creating the right internal conflict and the internal battle between teammates. It’s a thing that goes like, ‘If we pit these two guys against each other, and the more we put them in conflict, they will dig down and find speed responding to that clash between teammates.’
“But Justin wasn’t that way. He relished the idea of being able to honestly compare data, look at data with me and AJ Allmendinger. And in his quiet presence, he put you at ease. He would take you at face value and until you proved him unworthy of his trust, he would accept you. His guard was down from the beginning. I think that’s fair to say he decided right away, new team, new country, new series, we’re going to work together, and he and AJ were going to work together, not in conflict. And I just sat there in awe and fostered it.
“F1 burned him down pretty hard, and coming to the States, it just seemed like a really fresh breath of air where he could be part of something with teammates that was rewarding.”
Graham Rahal, 2008 IndyCar teammate at Newman/Haas Racing
“I remember vividly being with Justin and Julia when they told us that Jane was going to be a new addition to the family. We were in Syracuse, New York, having dinner on a media day together, and it was such an exciting moment for them. I mean, Julia has always had such a great bubbly personality and Justin… most people just thought he was a very quiet guy, but we had such a great time together and obviously, having been there from the start, I just remember the excitement and the pride that he had in that moment in his life, knowing he was about to become a first-time father. It just meant so much to him. Normally, about the only thing teammates talk about is racing, but this mattered so much to him.”
Jos Verstappen, Justin’s 2003 teammate at Minardi F1 for the first 11 rounds
“He was always smiling, very friendly. I met his mom and dad a few times and basically the same, always friendly people. Just very normal. He was a rookie, but I definitely did not receive him as an enemy. It was more in a warmer way. And it’s not that we were helping each other, no, you want to beat each other. He was young, he was promising, he did well in Formula 3000 as the champion before he came to Formula 1.
“He wanted to prove himself, he was quick, and that’s normal. He also had a good attitude. And I know it was near the end of my career and he was starting his. I lost motivation to beat him in qualifying and the race. Our cars weren’t fast, so they were only looking between us to see who was faster. But he was the more friendly guy. People liked him very much.”