DiZinno: Justin Wilson’s enduring legacy, positive spirit loom as large as his frame

2 Comments

It’s more than an hour after the checkered flag at this year’s Milwaukee IndyFest. It’s been even longer since Justin Wilson’s engine went up in flames, with a late-race mechanical failure sabotaging what could have been a runner-up finish to old Champ Car sparring partner Sebastien Bourdais at the classic one-mile Milwaukee Mile.

Most drivers would have been out of the premises by then. But not IndyCar’s gentle giant, fast giraffe, and benevolent badass. Pick your nickname de jour.

Wilson, who’s still there at the Andretti Autosport transporter and still in his firesuit, tells me he’ll get to my relatively inane and pointless questions about the race as soon as he fulfills the wishes of a couple kids standing outside awaiting an autograph and a picture.

He walks outside and the smiles surpass the sunshine on that Sunday afternoon.

He makes their day, and I’m happy to wait the extra few minutes for him to answer my questions.

“So, the sad saga of Justin Wilson’s 2015 rolls on, because it’s Bourdais-Wilson 1-2 like old times and of course the motor seizes up. What was it exactly that knocked you out?” I ask, as Wilson laughs and chuckles noting how he’s happy to be in this position even after a failure to finish.

The DNF comes as a microcosm of Wilson’s 2015 season.

Wilson’s 2015 season comes as a microcosm of Wilson’s North American open wheel career.

Opportunities dashed throughout, but still with an enduring smile and a persistent positivity that provides an uplifting spirit in the paddock.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS IN EUROPE

You see, Wilson was never meant to become a star in North America to begin with. The Sheffield, England native could have emulated some of his countrymen as Formula 1 stars, as eventual World Champions.

He emerged as champion of a crowded F3000 field in 2001 that also included these names: Mark Webber, Tomas Enge, Sebastien Bourdais, Antonio Pizzonia, Giorgio Pantano, Patrick Friesacher, Stephane Sarrazin and Zsolt Baumgartner. And those were just the eight other drivers on that year’s grid who made it to F1.

source:
Wilson made his Grand Prix debut with Minardi in 2003. Photo: Getty Images

Wilson did too, but only after investors pulled out the stops to ensure the lanky 6-foot-4 driver would eventually have a seat on the grid.

When he did, it was with Minardi, the team with the fewest level of resources on the grid.

The legend of Justin Wilson was born from the moment he made his Grand Prix debut in 2003.

Wilson’s on-track trademark carried throughout the last dozen years was his tendency to outperform less than stellar machinery. His only point? It came with Jaguar, the team now known as Red Bull.

Throughout it all, he never made excuses, never threw his team under the bus, and yet always persevered.

RISING STAR IN CHAMP CAR

source:
Wilson immediately made waves in Champ Car. Photo: Getty Images

He did it in Champ Car from his arrival in 2004, with a similar underdog in Conquest Racing. Armed with a less-than-stellar package, Wilson was qualifying in the top-five on a regular basis. The fact he only had two top-five finishes wasn’t an indictment of his ability; it just spoke to bad luck.

Once at the better-financed RuSPORT team in 2005, the results finally came. His first podium was a win at Toronto that year, which was somewhat overshadowed in the face of an on-track dustup (one of many at the time) between Bourdais and Paul Tracy. He added a dominant win from pole at Mexico City ahead of teammate AJ Allmendinger to cap off the season.

source:
Wilson and ‘Dinger’s 1-2 for RuSPORT in 2005. Photo: Getty Images

Wilson and Allmendinger could have made a reality show or sitcom in their own right: Allmendinger as the diminutive but dynamic Californian, with Wilson playing the all-too-kind and yet significantly taller Brit.

While Allmendinger was jettisoned from RuSPORT after four races the following year and went onto his best open-wheel success with another team, Wilson continued on as RuSPORT’s team leader.

He kept the team focused and kept morale high after a severe accident for “Dinger’s” replacement Cristiano da Matta in a testing shunt at Road America, when the likable Brazilian known as “Shorty” hit a deer.

Wilson’s most heroic drive likely came in the 2006 season finale at Mexico City. Despite breaking a small bone in his right wrist, Wilson left would-be substitute Adam Carroll waiting in the wings and made a triumphant, surprise return. He damn near beat Bourdais with one hand, losing out only by several tenths at race’s end.

He won only once in 2007 after successive runner-up championship finishes, but with Bourdais off to Formula 1 in 2008, Wilson was the natural – and perfect – replacement for him at Newman/Haas Racing.

A STAR IN THE RIGHT CAR, BUT AT THE WRONG TIME

source:
Wilson won Newman/Haas’ last race. Photo: Getty Images

As ever, Wilson’s timing was the opposite of impeccable. He finally got the best ride, and of course it came when Champ Car folded and the Indy Racing League (now INDYCAR) acquired its assets.

As a so-called “transition driver,” Wilson had to make due with a car that his team had five years fewer experience with than the Penskes and Ganassis of the world. The one time he had the best car, the Champ Car finale at Long Beach in the turbocharged Panoz DP01-Cosworth, his engine blew after 12 laps.

But a win at Detroit in the Dallara-Honda was no less than he and the team deserved, and ultimately proved the last in Newman/Haas’ incredible history. Paul Newman died the next month, September 2008.

MULTIPLE COYNE FLIPS

source:
First of two wins for Coyne. Photo: Getty Images

Budgets being what they were, Wilson found himself sidelined when Robert Doornbos replaced him at NHR in 2009. Wilson though found his way to Dale Coyne Racing, and delivered IndyCar’s biggest underdog its first ever win at Watkins Glen. It stands in IndyCar annals as one of the biggest upsets, as it was the only non-Penske/Ganassi win of the year.

Successive struggling seasons with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in 2010 and 2011 didn’t produce any wins, while a back injury from a practice accident at Mid-Ohio cost Wilson the second half of 2011.

Back at Coyne in 2012, Wilson delivered a popular win at Texas, and then produced a series of giant-killing performances in 2013 – arguably his best season everto enter the final race in Fontana fourth in points. But Wilson endured yet another injury to cap off 2013, when he sustained pelvic fractures and a pulmonary contusion in an accident there. It was typical Wilson – courageous but luckless.

His 2014 season was an odd one, without any podiums and an odd balance of luck in races where speed was required, and speed when luck was needed. Typical Justin being Justin though, he remained introspective and focused – even if internally, he wanted a new direction.

THE SAGA OF JUSTIN WILSON’S 2015, PRE-POCONO

source: AP
Wilson always had top team-talent, but never a shot until 2015. Photo: AP

Where Wilson was most incredible – in a career where he had been incredible – was this year. Even though the results showed it as statistically, one of his worst years.

Wilson and Coyne had done what they could together over parts of four years but realistically, both needed to break. Wilson needed a team worthy of his talent and Coyne needed to give Wilson the freedom to find one.

The team targeted all winter was Andretti Autosport. Yet as Wilson related to me in a November 2014 interview, it was always going to be a question of when.

“Dale’s a great guy, and the team has made some nice improvements,” Wilson said then. “But I have to see what’s best for my future and what works for me. It’s one of those things, where I could find out tomorrow, or it could be in another month or two months.”

It wound up being four-plus months. Wilson didn’t have a ride – any ride – until mid-March, when he was confirmed back with Michael Shank’s team aboard the team’s new Ligier JS P2 Honda as a third driver for the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

Ozz Negri crashed out of the race in the opening hours. Wilson never got to drive.

Only at St. Petersburg was Wilson confirmed at Andretti, and even then only for two races – the month of May with the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the 99th Indianapolis 500.

I bumped into Wilson in pit lane right before race start.

“I’m bummed you’re not out there, man,” I said.

“Me too. But it’ll be soon enough, and I can’t wait,” he replied, still smiling.

We get to the month of May. Wilson’s first race, despite qualifying best of the four Andretti cars, is sabotaged by a damaged front wing at the Turn 1 mess, a bad pit stop and a mechanical woe that put him out.

His Indy 500 sees him now adorned in a special one-off Rolling Stones livery ahead of Mick and the gang’s upcoming July 4 concert at the Speedway.

“It has to be pretty cool being a Brit, promoting the Stones, ahead of their concert here,” I said.

Wilson smiles, and I think he may have stuck his tongue out in the quick interaction before he put his helmet on and prepared for the Carb Day practice.

He leads the race in the final laps courtesy of a fuel gamble. He is unable to make the finish without a splash and ends 21st.

“I want to thank Andretti Autosport for this opportunity, looking forward to hopefully working with them again,” he said, graciously, not knowing his next race.

It comes in an Andretti FIA Formula E car in Moscow in early June.

His next race attempt was supposed to be in the HPD ARX-04b prototype at Pikes Peak. True to form, something went wrong. Turbocharger issues prevent Wilson and the HPD from a crack at the mountain.

The smile still lives.

Finally, the news comes he’s back in an IndyCar – with Andretti Autosport – for the rest of the season.

He returns at Milwaukee. I ask how nice it feels to actually have five days before his next race weekend, instead of this year-long question of wondering when exactly it’s going to be.

source: AP
Wilson’s final podium came after spirited fight with Rahal at Mid-Ohio. Photo: AP

“It’s nice! It’s nice to know you’re working towards something,” Wilson told me. “So next weekend, let’s go faster. Let’s sort it out and make it better.

“The balance is everything. Getting the right balance, is so, so sensitive. I can’t explain how sensitive these aero kits are, and how extreme it is. You say it’s sensitive and if you miss by just a fraction, you’re a second off. Maybe it’s not quite that extreme but that’s how it feels. It’s crazy!”

The passion is clearly there.

On August 2, the result he’d been working all year finally comes. Wilson made one spirited passing attempt for the win on Graham Rahal, but came up short.

A day where he could have won sees him happily take second, knowing it was the best possible result for Honda behind its lone IndyCar championship contender.

Wilson is at peace, and back on the podium where he rightfully should be.

THE MOMENTS WE’VE SHARED

It’s at this point in this missive where I note that Wilson played an integral part of my own career, dating to my first season in motorsports journalism in 2006.

I didn’t cover a ton of races on site between 2006 and 2009, and Wilson’s 2006 Champ Car race win at Edmonton was among those I followed remotely and wound up writing a report on.

Work like that laid the groundwork for an incredibly healthy and positive working, professional relationship, which I have to say was nothing but class, all the time.

After a tough Road America weekend the following year, my dad and I wound up seated only a few tables away from him at a Cheesecake Factory. Ordinarily a driver would not be pleased by a kid approaching him when he’s “off hours” but Wilson was so polite, so gracious even from my saying hi to him at that location.

source:
I think I knew what I was doing? Wilson and I at our first Indianapolis 500, in 2008. Photo courtesy Tony DiZinno

As I quickly found out, you don’t take pics with racing drivers once you’re covering them… but as he and I went through our first Indianapolis 500 experience together in 2008, he was all too happy to take a quick photo with me that year. Yes, this was pre-selfies.

There were moments where Wilson acknowledged a frustrating race yet was gracious enough to chat about it, notably after Long Beach in 2012, when he felt slighted by an awkward pit strategy. A solid 20-minute phone conversation later, he’d been as insightful as ever in explaining what happened that took him out of winning contention.

Then there were the times where it was just us simply laughing about our height disparity. Every “Hi, Justin!” I offered saw me kink my head and neck back in the process, to ensure I could properly make eye contact with him. I’m not that short, but the 5-foot-9 to 6-foot-4 disparity is a solid seven inches.

Whether it was an interview I wanted, a smile in the paddock I sought or an inevitable quip about how he was doing the best he could, regardless of the circumstances, I knew Justin Wilson was someone special.

He brought joy and light to everyone he touched. He made an indelible impression on the paddock. He was a tireless advocate for charity, and he never let his dyslexia affect him outwardly. Never once did he offer a bad word about anyone.

He was truly a special individual, one who like some others in racing, we’ve lost all too soon.

I pray for his kid brother Stefan – may he continue the legacy of the “bromates” behind the wheel.

I pray for his wife Julia, their two daughters, Justin’s parents Keith and Lynne and the rest of their family.

Rest in peace, Justin Wilson. May heaven be better – and taller – upon your arrival.

source: Getty Images
Wilson’s 2012 Texas win was his last. Photo: Getty Images

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

1 Comment

In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

Arrow McLaren Racing SP Photo
Leave a comment

McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500