Justin Wilson has died in hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania, from head injuries he suffered on Sunday, during the IndyCar race at Pocono International Speedway. He was 37.
It is ironic indeed that the story of the Sheffield-born Wilson should finish in Allentown, but in many ways the two steel towns on either side of the Atlantic sum up Justin’s character and his racing career. He was a man of steel, tough and strong in the face of adversity, who never gave up, despite the disadvantages and misfortunes that he had to deal with along the way.
Justin grew up in the Yorkshire countryside and started racing karts when he was nine. He switched to cars and raced for Paul Stewart in Formula Vauxhall but he did not have sufficient money to take a traditional route and moved to the new Formula Palmer Audi in 1998, becoming the first champion in the series with nine victories. With help from Jonathan Palmer, he moved straight into Formula 3000 in 1999 with the Astromega team before switching to Nordic Racing in 2000. After finding support from a Coca-Cola company, he was able to win the title the following year in a dominant fashion. The problem was not purely financial because his 6ft4in height would prove to be a serious obstacle. He tested for Jordan but his height proved to be a problem and he went into 2002 without a drive in Formula 1 and had to step back and race in the Nissan World Series, winning races in Spain and Brazil.
In order to secure a drive with Minardi he was required to raise £1.2 million and, working with his manager Jonathan Palmer, decided to try a new funding strategy and offered himself as an investment opportunity, floating Justin Wilson PLC on the stock exchange and giving fans the chance to own a share in his career and any money that he might make. This proved to be successful for him, although the investors did not make money as Justin’s career in the United States did not generate the kind of money that he might have earned if he had been able to stay in F1. He did sufficiently well with Minardi to be offered a drive by the Ford Motor Company-owned Jaguar Racing. Justin scored his first point for the team in the United States GP at Indianapolis.
Sadly, Ford’s ambitions in F1 crumbled to nothing and the team decided to take on Christian Klien in 2004, as he was able to bring funding from Red Bull. The team would be sold to Red Bull later and would become Red Bull Racing. With no hope of an F1 ride without money, Wilson headed across the Atlantic in 2004. He joined Mi-Jack Conquest Racing in Champ Car and learned the ropes and then moved on to RuSPORT the following season, winning his first race that year in Toronto and adding a second victory in Mexico City. He finished third in the championship. In 2006 he stayed with the operation but also tried his hand at sports car racing and finished second in the Daytona 24 Hours in a Michael Shank Racing Riley-Lexus. He would return to Daytona several times, finishing second again in 2010 and finally winning the race in 2012, sharing a Shank Ford with AJ Allmendinger, Oswaldo Negri and John Pew.
He finished runner-up in the weakened Champ Car series 2006 but ended the year breaking his wrist in a crash at Surfers Paradise. A few weeks later he married his longtime girlfriend Julia. Their daughters Jane and Jessica were born in 2008 and 2010.
Champ Car was falling apart in 2007 and Wilson was fortunate to find a drive with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing in the Indy Racing League for the 2008 season, when many drivers found themselves without work after the Champ Car-IRL fusion. He repaid the team’s faith in his abilities by winning that summer in Detroit, but at the end of the year the team could no longer afford to keep him and so he made the decision to sign for Dale Coyne Racing, an outfit with a fairly lacklustre reputation at that point. Wilson galvanised the team into action and in July that year he gave the team its first IndyCar victory, after more than 20 years trying, at Watkins Glen. Competing with the big combines became more and more difficult in 2009 and in 2010 Justin moved to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, although he would not win races with the team in the course of the next two seasons. He was out of action for half of 2011 after suffering a back injury in a crash at Mid-Ohio.
At the start of 2012 he decided to go back to Coyne and the magic returned and that summer he won his first oval victory with the team in Texas. His goal was to do sufficiently well to land a drive with one of the top teams, or to help Coyne become a frontrunner. The problems of money returned, however, and he found himself out of work at the start of this year. He talked his way into a drive with Andretti Autosport for the Indy 500 and did well enough to earn a ride for the final races of the season and two weeks ago finished second for the team in Mid-Ohio. His career, it seemed, was again on an upward path with the hope that he would become a full-time Andretti Autosport driver in 2016. Sadly, that was not to be.
Wilson was much respected by his peers and within the motor racing community and there is enormous sadness at his passing. The family has asked that donations be made to a fund that has been established for his children, which is being administered by IndyCar. Donations should be sent to: Wilson Children’s Fund, c/o Indycar, 4551 W. 16th St., Indianapolis, IN 46222.