IndyCar Racing’s Nice Guy

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There is a saying in sports that nice guys finish last. I’ve heard it repeated over and over, and never truly understood the meaning or the message behind it. As kids, we heard it and it reinforced the idea that the only way to get ahead in life was to be an over-zealous jerk. I’m all for being competitive and getting upset when you lose, but does that mean you have to loose all scruples in order to win? We now live in an age of reality TV, where not only is backstabbing and trash-talking accepted – it’s encouraged. Nice guys are considered boring, and therefore unappealing.

Fortunately, the IZOD IndyCar Series has several drivers that go against this notion. Some I’ve met, and some I have not. There is one driver in particular that I’ve never met, nor had any interaction with whatsoever, but I understand he is one of the nicest guys across the spectrum of sports – Justin Wilson.

I first heard of Justin Wilson when he first surfaced in Formula One in 2003, first with Minardi and then with Jaguar. I really knew nothing about him except that he usually fell out or races early and he shared the same name with a famous Cajun chef. Other than that, he did little to catch my eye – but then, I’m what most would call nothing more than a casual fan of Formula One.

It wasn’t until his second year in Champ Car in 2005, that I really started taking note of his driving abilities. His first year was with Conquest, which was pretty much then what it is now and probably had a lot to do with his anonymity. Still, Wilson managed to squeeze out two top-fives along with two sixth and two seventh place finishes. The next year however, he joined RuSport and his career flourished. The first year with RuSport produced two wins and six more top-five finishes that resulted in Wilson finishing third in points. In 2006 & 2007, Wilson finished second in the points behind Sébastien Bourdais. For 2008, Wilson was signed by Newman/Haas to replace Bourdais.

As fate would have it, that was the year that Champ Car and the Indy Racing League re-unified open-wheel racing just prior to the beginning of the season. Wilson had a young teammate in nineteen year-old Graham Rahal, he had only raced on a handful of ovals and his team was taking on equipment that was completely foreign to them just before the start of the season. To say that the deck seemed stacked against him in 2008 was putting it mildly. Still, Wilson was able to put together a win at Belle Isle along with six other top-ten finishes and an eleventh place finish in the points. Not bad, considering the prospects of a decent season before things kicked off at Homestead.

His thanks for such a solid season was a pink slip from Newman/Haas, as they were in the midst of financial struggles. It was late in the off-season and the best he could do was a ride at Dale Coyne Racing – hardly the place known to jumpstart a career. Be that as it may, Wilson did something no driver had done in twenty-five years of futility at Dale Coyne Racing – he won a race. That made two wins in two years in a series that was dominated almost entirely by the Penske & Ganassi teams during that time.

For 2010, Wilson was on the move again, this time landing at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing – his fourth team in four years. It sounded like a promising combination; a team and driver that both appeared to be on the rise. But for the first time since his first year in Champ car in 2004, Justin Wilson went winless in 2010. Curiously enough, Wilson chose to stay with Dreyer & Reinbold for the 2011 season – the first time he had returned to a team for a second season since 2007. To date, their best finish this season has been a seventh at São Paulo.

Through it all, the soft-spoken Brit has kept his sense of dignity and his sense of humor. Whether he is being interviewed after a crash or a strong qualifying run – Justin Wilson is always pleasant and smiling. He is also good for a quip or two. On Trackside last week, while talking about being careful on double-file re-starts, he deadpanned, “I don’t care if you’re Michael Schumacher or Milka Duno – you’ve got to be careful”. Justin Wilson doesn’t just give the corporate line just to satisfy the sponsor, either. He usually has something very interesting to say about the race.

But it is the demeanor that comes across the TV screen that makes him so likeable. Last year, our old friend Roy Hobbson was interviewed on an Indianapolis radio station a week or two before the Indianapolis 500. Also included on the program were Monica Hilton a.k.a. “The Race Girl” and Justin Wilson. I was able to catch the program live and talked to Roy just after it was over. He said that he now had a new favorite driver. When he’s sober, Roy knows a lot more about racing than he likes to let on. Plus, he’s in tight with several drivers, so he’s gotten to know several of them. Roy said he’s never met a more cordial and genuinely nice public celebrity than Justin Wilson. He was polite, didn’t take himself too seriously and put himself on the exact same level as his fellow guests – two IndyCar bloggers whom he had never met.

Last week at Toronto – Justin’s brother, Stefan Wilson won the Firestone Indy Lights race. In an interview just before Stefan took the checkered flag, Justin said he was much more nervous watching his little brother than he was to climb into a cockpit himself. Many people say such things, but he looked like he meant it. His face looked like a bundle of nerves and he seemed overcome when his brother took his first series win.

It’s a pastime of bench-racers to wonder aloud how a certain driver might perform in top-notch equipment. Newman/Haas is enjoying a resurgence as they strive to become an elite team again, but when Wilson drove for them, they were already well on their way to the mediocrity that plagued them for the past few seasons. Conquest and Dale Coyne can only brag that they are better than Team 3G. Dreyer & Reinbold shows signs of promise at times, but this year has been a major disappointment. I think we would all clamor to see what Justin Wilson could do in a Penske or Ganassi car. That chance may never come.

In the meantime, we can hope that Justin Wilson and DRR can put it all together. Although Wilson’s results have not been good since he joined Dreyer & Reinbold, I still expect a win to come on some of the remaining road & street courses. He’s that good. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him win this weekend at Edmonton. In the meantime, I’ll always be pulling for him. He’s a nice guy that’s easy to cheer for. Plus, it would help put an end to the nice guys finish last cliché.

George Phillips

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7 Responses to “IndyCar Racing’s Nice Guy”

  1. He’s a good guy. Nice article–easy for those sorts of things to get lost in the shuffle.

  2. The Media like bad boys so they can slate them and sell newspapers
    The Audience likes bad boys so they have someone to moan at and blame. Nice Guys win but are too boring to be heroes.

    Sad but true!

  3. Megan K. Bickel Says:

    My husband took my son to meet him this past May when he was doing autrographs at our local Kroger and he was a super wonderful guy. We get a lot of pictures with our kids and drivers, but Justin stood out among them as a classy guy.

    Good post, George!

  4. I’ve said for a while that if I owned an Indycar team, Justin Wilson would be the first guy I called.
    While he’s struggled this year, no one does more with less.

  5. I’ve always liked Wilson — and Servia and Hinchcliffe and Legge and De Silvestro and Herta and Papis and other pleasant, easygoing racers who’re happy to earn a living doing what they enjoy.
    One need not be overly-aggressive on track or venomous out of the cockpit to finish a race first. Racecraft+engineering might+good fortune=win
    I would’ve liked to see Newman-Haas, last winter, court Wilson and Z-Line Designs. He deserves a much better opportunity to win than DRR provides.
    Thanks, George, for another enjoyable blog post!

  6. billytheskink Says:

    Very much agreed, George. Wilson is total class and an excellent driver on top of that. He’ll probably go down in history as one of those “just think if he’d been with a top team” guys (Champ/IndyCar or Formula 1), but even some of those guys don’t have 6 wins to their credit. His drive in the disgusting Tornoto race epitomizes that.

    I expect we’ll see him in victory lane a few more times before his career is done.

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