Gentle giant Wilson, the ‘racers’ racer’
LONDON – A gentle giant of the paddock, Justin Wilson spent much of his career battling to fit his lanky frame into race cars built for smaller men and his quiet determination to succeed against the odds won him admirers across the globe.
The Briton died on Monday at the age of 37 after suffering a severe head injury during a wreck in the closing laps of the penultimate IndyCar Series race at Pocono Raceway oval the previous day in Pennsylvania.
A former Formula One driver and multiple IndyCar winner, Wilson had been in critical condition in hospital before his death.
The huge flow of tributes from drivers and motor sport enthusiasts around the world underlined his standing as the “racers’ racer”, a man whose pursuit of his passion never compromised his integrity.
“Why do we do this? Because we love it, don’t want to be anywhere else but a race car,” Brazilian driver Tony Kanaan, the 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner, tweeted.
“We will keep your legacy my friend. Racers race.”
Wilson was the first IndyCar driver to die following a race accident since fellow Briton Dan Wheldon was killed in a fiery crash in Las Vegas in Oct. 2011.
Though drivers earn their pay pushing the limits, Wilson was the eighth to die in open wheel races on Northern American circuits since 1996 and the tragedy is certain to reignite the safety debate that has rumbled in the background.
Brought up in Woodall, a tiny hamlet abutting a freeway in south Yorkshire, Wilson’s racing obsession sprung from boyhood karting and his talents were confirmed with his 1998 victory in the now-defunct British-based Formula Palmer Audi championship.
Wilson graduated to Formula 3000, the second-tier circuit behind Formula One, and won the 2001 championship.
His 6ft-4in (1.93m) height would prove a liability in securing a race seat in F1, where drivers over six feet are a rarity, but with his management setting up a crowd-funding scheme to finance his racing ambitions, he was picked up by Minardi in 2003.
He joined Jaguar for the last five races of the season and scored his first and only championship point at the United States Grand Prix but would end up losing his seat to pay driver Christian Klien.
F1 ambitions dashed, Wilson rebuilt his career in the open wheel circuits in the US, winning four times in the defunct Champ Car world series and three times in IndyCar.
As for many other drivers, the cut-throat world of motor racing was a labour of love for Wilson, who grafted hard to secure drives and admitted it was hard on his family.
“It’s just been one of those off-seasons, a roller-coaster of emotions, some days like really good and then other days, pretty desperate,” Wilson said in an interview posted on his website (justinwilson.co.uk) earlier this year.
“And it’s been like that the whole off-season where it’s been up-down-up-down so many times with a couple of teams.
“It’s tough on the family because they don’t know what you’re doing.
“My father calls from England every day … Some days you can’t give him any news. Other days it’s negative. You try to drip-feed good news.”
Wilson struggled to secure a regular drive this year but was thrilled to have been given some races at the end of the series with Andretti Autosport.
He underlined his quality with a runner-up finish at the Mid-Ohio race earlier this month, his first podium finish in IndyCar since 2013.
“It’s great to get a good result here and continue to build towards next year and see what happens,” he said after the race.
“Hopefully something will come together.”
On Sunday, Wilson was struck by debris from another car during the wreck at the Pocono Raceway oval and his car careened out of control and into a wall. He was airlifted to hospital and died the following day.
He is survived by his wife Julia and two daughters. -Reuters