IndyCar driver Justin Wilson died Monday at the age of 37 from the severe head injury he suffered Sunday after being hit by debris from a wreck at Pocono Raceway. NBC Sports IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell joined NASCAR America earlier in the day to discuss Wilson’s great character and outstanding reputation.
Besides having raced on track together in parts of the same season dating to 2008 (various crossovers meant Bell was in IndyCar while Wilson was in Champ Car from 2002 through 2007), the two were also briefly teammates in 2011, at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. Bell filled in for two races for a then-injured Wilson, after Wilson’s back was hurt in an accident in practice at Mid-Ohio.
Bell explained what made Wilson such a beloved figure within the paddock.
“I think Justin is known as really the nicest guy in the IndyCar paddock,” Bell told NBCSN’s Dave Briggs. “Gracious and kind. A real gentle soul outside of the car and an absolute tiger inside the car. One of the most naturally gifted drivers, and somebody who has been largely underrated for most of his career… finally getting a first class opportunity, which he deserves, with Andretti Autosport.
“The incident couldn’t come at such a worse time for him, at a prime opportunity. The outpouring of support is a result of the person. But forget the racing driver, he’s somebody that anybody would step out to help in a time like this.”
Bell also expanded on his long-standing view IndyCar should eventually evolve to have closed cockpits, although he noted the implementation is something that will take time to perfect.
“It’s been discussed for a long time. We have been through… unfortunately incidents like this in the past,” Bell said. “Going back to Vegas in 2011 (with Dan Wheldon). Even prior to that, Ayrton Senna (in 1994 at Imola).
“I think the thing that drivers are always concerned about is head exposure. Because they’re not only open-wheel, but open cockpit cars. I’ve long advocated that’s my biggest concern, because the airplane industry stopped having open cockpit fighter planes in the 1920s or something. I think it’s time for us to evolve on the racing side.
“With the speed you go, with debris flying… you are at risk. But it’s easy to say that, knowing the implementation… it’s a very difficult thing and to test and develop the ideal solution.
“It’s been on everyone’s mind since 2011 in Las Vegas. We had an incident last year with James Hinchcliffe at the Indianapolis road course, where he took a projectile hit to the head and suffered a pretty severe concussion.
“It’s defnitely on everybody’s mind.”