The Sport That Justin Wilson Loved
Monday night, the news was confirmed. It was the news we had all been dreading since late Sunday afternoon. We hoped and prayed that Justin Wilson would somehow beat the odds that were stacked against him, but it was not to be. Justin Wilson succumbed to the injuries he suffered at Pocono Raceway one day earlier.
By now, much has been said and written about what a great driver he was and how popular he was among his peers in the paddock and racing fans. It has also been noted that his most crowning achievement was as a father, husband, son and brother. The love he showed for his family is well documented. There is little that I can add other than to say he will be missed.
This news was and is devastating. I’m not sure which night was worse. Sunday night was a restless night spent wondering, fearing and hoping. Monday night brought confirmation of the worst, but a sense of finality and resolution. We can’t get the thought of his family left behind out of our collective minds. That is the worst part of it.
With little else to offer about the man that Justin Wilson was, I would like to go in a slightly different direction to honor his memory. Some will say that it is way too early to discuss such a topic, but I disagree. I think Justin Wilson would want this topic to be brought up immediately and he would agree with what I’m about to say.
I’ll not cheapen his loss by comparing this era to when I grew up following this sport in the sixties and drivers were lost on a near monthly basis. This is a huge loss now and would have been just as huge then. The pain we are feeling is not limited to an era.
In the fifties, Pat O’Connor was probably the most popular driver in the paddock, much like Justin Wilson in our era. Also like Wilson, O’Connor never won the Indianapolis 500 nor a series championship. But he was deeply respected by his peers and loved by a legion of fans. He was a native Hoosier that was a favorite due to his unassuming demeanor. He lost his life in Turn Three on the opening lap of the 1958 Indianapolis 500. Many Hoosiers in the stands left that day and said they would never be back. It hurt that much. From what I understand, many of those fans never did come back. They wanted nothing to do with a sport that was so cruel that it frequently took their heroes.
Of course, many did come back. Maybe not the next year, but they did come back.
In the moments before and after the press conference, when IndyCar CEO Mark Miles informed us of Wilson’s passing, I was scouring through social media for any news I could find. What I saw was an overwhelming theme from many people that I know to be avid race fans – I’m done with IndyCar.
Shortly after the press conference concluded, I got a text from one of my best friends within the IndyCar community. His simple question spoke volumes – Why the hell do we continue to love this sport???? I had no real answer other than the pointless “Because we do”. That was insufficient. He needed answers and all I gave him was that.
Mario Andretti once said “Unfortunately, motor racing also gives us this”. The nature of racing sometimes makes it hard to be a fan. It is much, much safer than it used to be; but there is still inherent danger in this sport – and there always will be. Unfortunately, fatalities will always be a part of this sport to some extent. In the sixties, drivers and fans were hardened to the fact that there would be lives lost each season. We knew about and admired a driver’s on-tack prowess and bravado, but there was no social media so we knew very little about the drivers of yesteryear.
Nowadays, with every race on television complete with a pre- and post-race show, we get plenty of chances to learn about these drivers. With social media, we get to interact directly with drivers. We see how they spend their free time. We learn about their families and what kind of food they like. In a sense, we feel like we live next door to them and know them like a neighbor. Then, when they are snatched away from us – it hurts as much as losing a family member. That’s what makes it so hard on us fans. It’s easy to question why we continue to love this sport.
But make no mistake, we do love this sport – and we want it to continue.
It’s hard to believe that as gutted as we felt at the end of the 2011 season, we feel just as gutted less than four years later. But I make a heartfelt plea to anyone reading this to not abandon this sport. Justin Wilson loved this sport. Dan Wheldon loved it. So did Paul Dana, Tony Renna, Greg Moore and the many others who lost their lives in pursuit of their dreams. None of them planned on dying. And I don’t buy, for a minute, the old line of “…at least he died doing what he loved”. As much as all of the aforementioned drivers loved the sport, they didn’t want to die doing it. They all dreamed of a life after racing.
Justin Wilson was known as the gentle giant and was never known for having a temper. Most say that they never heard him utter an unkind word about anyone. But I’ll bet he would be very upset to learn that some fans of the sport he loved, turned away from it after he was fatally injured in a race car.
More than any other sport or most things in life, the sport of motor racing can provide fans and drivers with the highest of incredible highs, but the lowest of lows anyone could possibly fathom. That’s where we are right now – the lowest low.
We all get frustrated with the political minutia that goes on with this sport. But strip all of that away and you’re left with a sport that incites more passion within us than anything else, other than our own families. Although it’s easy to overlook at the moment – for all of the heartbreak we are feeling right now, this has been an incredible season for fans and competitors alike.
In the midst of all the wonderful tributes that I saw throughout the day yesterday, I also saw pleas from fans for their favorite IndyCar driver to retire immediately – not even waiting for this weekend’s season finale. A couple of IndyCar bloggers that I respect posted similar thoughts. One said that they were giving up on IndyCar completely, the other was going to take a long sabbatical to gather his thoughts before deciding to write anymore beyond this tragedy. They couldn’t bear the thought of losing another driver that they felt close to.
This site is not read by many casual fans. It is a segment of hardcore IndyCar fans that have been coming here for the past several years. I am sending out this plea to anyone reading this post – we need you, now more than ever! While we are feeling pain for Justin Wilson, his family, his close friends in the paddock and his fans – we need you to stick with the sport that Justine Wilson helped build, hold together and was so passionate about.
In the coming days and weeks, the mainstream media will descend upon this sport and talk of things they know nothing about. They will decry the safety of IndyCar and will question the reasons for its very existence. Emotional and knee-jerk reactions will become the norm for many. If the core fans of this sport abandon the fan base, it will give fuel to the fire of the perception that this sport is dying and needs to. Justin Wilson would not want that. Neither should anyone else.
Support for this sport has a history of being fractured, even among its most die-hard fans. Now is the time for fans to come together, not scatter and leave the sport with no fan base at all. Fans should keep their heads and not buy into the negativity that is sure to come from pundits who have no idea what they are talking about, when it comes to racing and safety. These types always show up whenever there is a fatality in racing. They want the sport to be dissolved because they don’t understand it. They also think it shows how much they care about mankind. If you disagree with them, you obviously don’t care about mankind near as much as they do.
What they also don’t understand is that Justin Wilson cared about mankind much more than they ever would. He also cared deeply for the sport of IndyCar racing. He loved it so much that he actively served on a three-person committee devoted to the safety of IndyCar racing in order to improve the sport he loved so much.
In the next few months, there will be heated debate on safety issues, including enclosing the cockpits of Indy cars with canopies or some other structure. Whether or not you agree with that, the debate should take place before a conclusion is reached. But now is not the time for that debate. Neither was Sunday night. Since that is a long process anyway, that debate should hold off for a few weeks.
Now is the time for IndyCar fans to unite – not separate and run. We should all unite out of respect for Justin Wilson and the legacy he left behind. And above all else, please unite and keep the family of Justin Wilson in your thoughts and prayers. As much as we are hurting today, our lives will return to relative normalcy by next week. This horrible new chapter has just begun for his family and their lives will never be the same again.
May God bless and comfort the family of Justin Wilson.