Justin Wilson, 37, died Monday, one day after he was struck in the head by a piece of flying debris during the Verizon IndyCar Series race at Pocono Raceway.
It's heartwrenching whenever a racer dies, but in this instance, Wilson had done nothing wrong. Not only did he not crash, he didn’t collide with anyone else’s crash. Sage Karam wrecked in front of Wilson's car in the final laps of the race, sending a piece of broken race car hurtling his way. You can watch the tragic accident here:
The randomness of the crash makes Wilson's death even harder to take, but not as hard as knowing that he left behind a wife and two young daughters along with a younger brother, Stefan, who followed Justin into IndyCar as a fellow racer.
In the wake of the tragedy, Stefan tweeted, “I often told him, I just want to grow up to be half the man he is, that will make me a pretty good man.”
So it seemed when I met Wilson when he raced for Jaguar’s Formula One team, paired with teammate Mark Webber for the 2003 season. Wilson—who is seated on the far right in the 2003 photo above along with me and Webber— was one of the friendliest and most accessible Formula One drivers I ever met.
Wilson's approachability was all the more refreshing in the wake of his Jaguar predecessor, the notoriously prickly Eddie Irvine, who simply skipped the media activities entirely to avoid having to talk with journalists.
Wilson, a native of Sheffield, England, was champion of the International Formula 3000 series, which was then the step below Formula One and was twice runner-up in the CART Champ Car series.
Wilson was so determined to race that he actually sold shares in himself to raise money to drive for the Minardi Formula One team in 2002. In those pre-Kickstarter days, such audacity was unheard of, but it worked, and he raised the money needed to join the team.
That’s how it works in racing. Aspiring drivers have to pay teams to be allowed to drive their cars, while brand-name racers are paid millions by teams to strap into their cars.
While Wilson was willing to do anything to be able to race, he never adopted a ruthless, mercenary attitude. Throughout the IndyCar, Formula One and sports car racing paddocks, his colleagues are reeling from the shock of his loss.
His old Minardi team is now known as Scuderia Toro Rosso, and they issued a statement, remembering Wilson as “a friendly, gentle person and a talented true racer.”
As his brother, Stefan, noted, we’d do well to be half as good.
Photos by Jaguar