INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Stefan Wilson feels the presence of his late brother everywhere he turns at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He thinks about it every day. He remembers the stories and vivid images from the countless hours they spent at this track. And it’s a good bet that Justin Wilson will be watching over his younger brother when he makes his third Indianapolis 500 start on Sunday.
The Wilsons have always been a team at Indy.
“He’ll be on my mind,” the 28-year-old English driver said Thursday. “He is every day here because it’s a place we spent a lot of time together the last seven years or so.”
Nearly three years after Justin Wilson died at age 37 from injuries sustained when debris from another car hit him in the head at Pocono Raceway, the memories remain strong and the influence Wilson had on IndyCar racing are more visible than ever.
There was the head-protecting windscreen series officials tested at Indy in April, a device they hope will prevent future injuries in open-wheel racing.
There is the message on the side pod of the No. 25 Andretti Autosport car, (hash)Driven2SaveLives. It’s a promotion for organ donation, something Justin Wilson considered near and dear to his heart, and his own donations saved several lives. Stefan Wilson is now trying to raise awareness about the 150,000 people still in need of donors who could save their lives.
The starting grid comes with an ironic twist.
After giving away his ride to two-time Formula One champ Fernando Alonso last year, Wilson came back this year and qualified 23rd – the middle of Row 8. Right next to him will be Sage Karam, who led the race in Pocono until crashing on that fateful August day in 2015. It was the debris from his car that struck Wilson’s brother, one of the tallest and most respected drivers in the series.
Make no mistake, Stefan Wilson understands it was a freak accident or what drivers like to call “just racing.”
“Three’s no blaming Sage. He was racing for the win,” Wilson said.
For a long time, the 23-year-old Karam blamed himself. He talked repeatedly with sports psychologists and it took months for him to understand that he did nothing wrong.
But even then, Karam, struggled to cope.
“It wasn’t like I woke up one day and was totally fine,” he said. “It was like a year later, and Stefan reached out to me and told me it wasn’t my fault. I think to hear that from him was one of the last healing things for me, to hear that from someone in his family. I pray for his family every day.”
Karam made 12 starts that season for Chip Ganassi Racing that season, the last coming at Pocono. Since then, he’s made only two starts – both at the 500. This year, he’s driving for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
Wilson and Karam have remained in contact and somehow find themselves facing similar predicaments after Sunday. Both are making their first and likely only starts this season and both probably need strong finishes to impress sponsors and teams to give them another chance.
For Wilson, the stakes may be even higher.
“It’s tough,” he said. “It’s been on my mind since coming up here. I know (after Sunday) I will be unemployed and I have no prospects for the future. I don’t know what the sponsors will do after May, and it’s on my mind that this definitely could be my last Indianapolis 500. So I’m trying to appreciate and absorb as much as possible.”
And sharing it with his brother and Karam may be the most fitting tribute of all.
“I know Justin will be on his shoulders as well,” he said. “So it’s kind of like I get to start next to both of them.”