IndyCar driver Justin Wilson dies – USA TODAY
Justin Wilson, 37, died Monday, a day after he was struck in the head by a piece of debris during the Verizon IndyCar Series race at Pocono Raceway, according to IndyCar.
Wilson was hit by debris from the car of rookie Sage Karam, who was leading the ABC Supply 500 when his No. 8 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet spun on its own in Turn 1 on Lap 179 of the 200-lap race Sunday. IndyCar drivers are far more susceptible to head injuries because the cockpits are open and their helmets exposed.
Wilson is the first driver since Dan Wheldon in 2011 to die in a major U.S.-based auto racing series.
He is survived by wife Julia and daughters Jane, 7, and Jessica, 5.
“This is a monumentally sad day for IndyCar and the motorsports community as a whole,” said Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co., the parent of IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Justin’s elite ability to drive a race car was matched by his unwavering kindness, character and humility — which is what made him one of the most respected members of the paddock. As we know, the racing industry is one big family, and our efforts moving forward will be focused on rallying around Justin’s family to ensure they get the support they need during this unbelievably difficult time.”
Miles, who announced Wilson’s death at press conference at Indianapolis Motor Speedway shortly after 9 p.m. ET Monday night, took no questions but said the series would address Wilson’s accident further in the coming days.
The Wilson family also issued a statement confirming his death Monday night:
“With deep sadness, the parents of Justin Wilson, Keith and Lynne, his wife Julia, and his brother Stefan share the news that Justin passed away today after succumbing to injuries suffered during the Verizon IndyCar event at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, August 23.
Justin was a loving father and devoted husband, as well as a highly competitive racing driver who was respected by his peers.
The family would like to thank the staff at the Lehigh Valley Health Network Cedar Crest Hospital, Pocono Raceway, Andretti Autosport, and the Verizon IndyCar Series as well as the entire racing community for the amazing outpouring of support from fans around the world.
The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Wilson Children’s Fund care of IndyCar.”
Wilson was taken to Lehigh Valley Health Network Cedar Crest in Allentown, Pa., and IndyCar officials released a statement around 9 p.m. ET Sunday stating Wilson was in a coma and in critical condition with a serious head injury. IndyCar said early Monday afternoon that Wilson’s condition remained the same.
Once Wilson was struck, his car immediately veered to the left and into the inside wall on the exit of Turn 1. The wall was covered by a SAFER barrier. Safety workers immediately arrived and frantically worked to extricate Wilson from the No. 25 Andretti Autosport Honda.
It is not known if he suffered other injuries.
IndyCar driver/owner Ed Carpenter joined Miles for the somber press conference Monday night to announce Wilson’s death and to speak for all the drivers in the series:
“Obviously, Justin was a great professional driver and extremely good at his craft. Beyond that he was a great guy. One of the few, if only, guys that really was a friend among everyone in the paddock, amongst the competitors, and respected for the way he carried himself.
“What Justin’s gone through over the past couple years, how hard he worked to get back into the car this season, and the opportunity that he had with Andretti, I think he exemplified the reason we all love doing this. As challenging as today is and (Aug. 23) was, he was doing what he loved to do, what we all love to do, and why we’ll all be back competing in his honor in the near future.”
Andretti Autosport also released a statement following the announcement of Wilson’s death:
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Justin Wilson. He was a tremendous racer, a valuable member of the team and respected representative to our sport. While Justin was only part of the Andretti lineup for a short time, it only took a second for him to forever become part of the Andretti family. His life and racing career is a story of class and passion surpassed by none. Our thoughts and prayers remain with the Wilson family and fans worldwide.”
Wilson was a native of Sheffield, England, who resided in Longmont, Colo. He had competed in American open-wheel racing since 2004, and competed in six races this season for Andretti Autosport, owned by former driver Michael Andretti.
Stefan Wilson, Justin’s younger brother and fellow racecar driver, said he was his best friend, a mentor and a hero.
Wilson considered Sheffield home, but he spent recent years living in the Denver suburb, where he was an avid mountain cyclist.
Wilson reached the highest level of international motor sports – Formula One – but his stay there was short. He arrived in the U.S. in 2004 and immediately made an impact with his results and personality.
Wilson won four races in the old Champ Car World Series and three more in the combined IndyCar Series. He added eight poles and shared driving duties on the winning sports car entry in the 2012 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, the USA’s leading endurance race held each January in Daytona Beach, Fla.
In spite of Wilson’s undeniable talent, IndyCar never seemed to shine on him. This partial-season ride with Andretti Autosport was his sixth IndyCar team. He often seemed close to landing with one of the larger teams, but deals never seemed to materialize, mostly because a lack of sponsorship.
“The guy just couldn’t get a break,” said veteran engineer Bill Pappas, who felt as close to Wilson as a brother. “He’s the best racer who couldn’t get a (great) job.”
Pappas, who won races with Wilson, including two with Dale Coyne’s underdog team, said his wife called Wilson “the Renaissance Man” because of his varied interests and his ability to relate to everyone he met. Pappas said Wilson, a leading advocate for driver safety, could communicate at any level.
“He was the common man of sport, a true sportsman,” Pappas said.
Said Colorado mountain bike training partner JR Hildebrand, a fellow IndyCar driver: “I never heard him say a bad word about anybody.”
Part of Wilson’s charm was his vulnerability. He was dyslexic, and he used his platform to raise awareness for others. But he never used it as an excuse for the challenges he overcame as a young man.
Wilson put so much thought into motor sports safety that earlier this summer he offered an alternative approach to protecting fans. While acknowledging his radical idea would be expensive to implement, Wilson suggested tracks move spectator grandstands to the inside of oval tracks since a car’s momentum carries debris to the outside. Instead of cable fencing with posts like what Wheldon fatally smashed into, Wilson suggested seamless metal barriers to allow cars to slide without becoming entangled.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles also issued a statement on Wilson’s death on behalf of the legendary home of IndyCar:
“We’re saddened to have lost such an exceptional driver, friend and role model to many in the IndyCar community. Justin was one of the most versatile and talented drivers of the last 15 years, as evidenced by his wins in sports cars, Champ Car and IndyCar. More important than his driving ability was his approachable personality, his calm spirit, and the respect he earned throughout the racing community for the tremendous person, friend, father and husband he was. Justin made innumerable friends and admirers throughout the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR communities. All of us at IMS extend our prayers and deepest sympathy to the Wilson family.”
Graham Rahal was Wilson’s teammate at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing in Champ Car’s final season, in 2008. Rahal said Wilson was the rarest of all partners.
“A lot of drivers are great because they’re selfish,” Rahal said in including series champions he’d worked with in the past. “It’s guys like Tiger Woods, and that’s what makes them the way they are.
“But Justin was always the first guy to come up to me and say something positive, something constructive, something helpful. You mention ‘team player,’ that’s Justin, and it’s hard to find that sort of guy in sports.
“He was just the nicest guy out there.”
PHOTOS: IndyCar driver Justin Wilson
Not surprisingly, Wilson was one of three drivers selected a few years back to represent the drivers in talks with IndyCar. The others? Former series champions and Indianapolis 500 winners Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan.
“Justin made it natural to be out here doing things together,” Hildebrand said. “He was a husband, a father and a friend, and he was great at being all of them.”
Contributing: Jeff Olson, Mike Hembree, Nate Ryan, Curt Cavin