Remembering Justin Wilson and Questioning Myself

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Someone just walked by my desk and asked me if I was OK and I realized that I’m not.

It’s been four days since Justin Wilson’s accident and I’m not OK. I’m left wondering why I’m a part of a sport that can be so devastatingly deadly.

Justin Wilson
I took this picture of Justin Wilson at Indy this year

I’m wondering why I’m questioning myself more than ever before.

Of course part of that is simply because of Justin Wilson. I started covering him when he arrived in Formula One back in 2003. Of course my interest back then was possibly more amazement than anything else. Seeing a 6’4” racing driver is like seeing Bigfoot in the flesh. For many years it simply couldn’t happen in open wheel racing. The Minardi team had to design a car around him because he was so tall. His results weren’t spectacular that year. Good for a Minardi driver in the first part of the season, and OK for a Jaguar driver at the end of 2003, but not really enough to make people think he was something special.

But he was.

After coming to the United States Justin won four Champ Car races between 2005 and 2007, finishing second in the series twice. But perhaps his best win came for Dale Coyne in 2009 after Champ Car and the IRL merged to form IndyCar. Coyne’s team was never much of a player. In 25 years of racing it had only a handful of podiums and no victories. Wilson changed that by winning at Watkins Glen that year. He didn’t do it by saving fuel or some odd strategy. He drove away from the Penske and Ganassi cars to win the race. It was simply great driving.

But that’s only part of what made Justin Wilson special.

By now you’ve no doubt heard plenty of people say that Justin Wilson was the nicest guy in the IndyCar paddock. I wish I could figure out a way to say more, to truly make you understand the truth of that statement. But it’s such an absolute that I can make it any stronger. No one was easier to talk with. No one was less full of himself. No one was nicer. That’s it. I could tell you a hundred stories about why, but they all add up the same way.

Which is why I’m left wondering about myself today. How could I enjoy a sport that can steal someone so special?

Dan Wheldon (Courtesy Robin Hadder)
My last interview with Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas in 2011     (Copyright: Robin Hadder)

I understand and accept the fact that it’s been around me most of my whole life. I came of age watching drivers like Swede Savage and Jochen Rindt. My boyhood hero was Mark Donohue. My first race broadcasting on network television was the 1987 St. Petersburg Trans-Am. It became a tragic baptism when Jim Fitzgerald died after crashing on the third lap. Since then I’ve lost friends like Tony Renna (I still haven’t deleted his email from my contacts) and Kara Hendrick. Dan Wheldon’s death was particularly painful. I’d covered his years in the Toyota Atlantic Championship and Indy Lights before he arrived in IndyCar. We shared the same birthday and would joke about how we’d celebrated each year. I was also the last person to interview Dan before he stepped into his race car at Las Vegas. I can still remember his smile that day.

Maybe it’s my friendship with Justin Wilson that is causing me so much pain. Maybe it’s simply the weight of all those deaths that is suddenly pressing down on me.  I only know that I’m not OK.

I’ve read Tony Kanaan’s comments about racing this week. With everyone questioning his sanity, he’s made it clear that it’s just something he does. He’ll mourn and then he’ll step into his race car and risk his life again.

Maybe that’s why I’m not OK. I know that I’m going to go back as well. When our ESPN coverage of IndyCar starts next year, I’ll be there. I’ll miss Justin and Dan and every other driver who died too soon. I’ll tell myself that each crash helps make the sport safer. I’ll put it all out of my mind after the green flag drops.

Maybe someday I’ll understand why.

1 COMMENT

  1. I have watched racing for more than 55 years. It can be a very brutal sport. It is much, much safer than it used to be when it seemed like someone was killed at every race. The comment that “racers race” is very true. They just love the speed and the opportunity and are willing to put it all on the line. I watched Steve McQueen in Le Mans not long ago. There is a line in there about how he feels alive racing, but between races he is just waiting. I have talked with a number of drivers from small tracks to big venues who totally agree with that. They know the risks and take them.

    I feel hurt from this accident. Absolutely just being in the wrong spot at the very wrong time. I doubt that anything could really have been done to prevent it. Even a canopy probably would not have stopped it.

    I have a list of people that I think about when someone is killed. I have a picture of a driver that I was standing next to when I was a kid. He was killed just a few weeks later. He had a great smile and told me he loved to race. Racers race. They would be pushing the limit even if professional racing was banned.

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