Senior staff writer
Justin Wilson and I always saw eye to eye.
At 6 foot, 4 inches, Wilson was an extremely tall IndyCar driver; it still left him barely one inch shorter than my height. He always smiled when I mentioned that we could see eye to eye with each other.
Justin Wilson, 37, always smiled and always had time to talk with me, other media members, drivers, car owners and fans.
There are so many reasons why it is difficult to cope with his death due to head injuries suffered one of open wheel’s most freaky incidents Sunday at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway.
Suffice it to say, he was a Brit who overcame dyslexia to reach Formula One and later become a highly revered Indianapolis 500 veteran.
Justin was a rookie in the Indianapolis 500 in 2008. Because he was from Great Britain, he was among drivers from that nation that I was assigned to write about and file stories back to his homeland. He raced in eight 500-Mile races for different teams, including a team co-owner and Greenwood auto dealership owner Dennis Reinbold.
Having a wife who was born in England and having traveled twice to Great Britain, I feel somewhat of a common bond with Justin and all drivers from that nation who have raced in the 500 for the past 16 years.
Justin’s story of growing up with dyslexia also hits home. He was not diagnosed with dyslexia until age 13 years. Growing up, he could only see some words, usually the middle part of a page; he could not discern other words because the letters were jumbled.
Racing karts was his release from the social stigma associated with that condition.
A few years ago at the Speedway, I stood nearly eye to eye with Justin as always. He was adjusting his helmet. Our conversation eventually turned to dyslexia because of his history and our grand-daughter, Katie Stevens who was diagnosed with dyslexia while in the first grade in school in North Carolina. Our daughter, Darla Stevens, fortunately was able to obtain the assistance she needed throughout her education in Lincoln County.
I shared with Justin that Katie had severe dyslexia; she saw numbers and letters upside down and backwards. Last May, I proudly told Justin that she was an honor roll student as a high school sophomore.
Seeing firsthand how hard Katie had to work to get around her dyslexia and achieve fostered my admiration for Justin and what he must have gone through as a youngster growing up in England.
Many times during his racing career in the U.S., Justin would talk to children who were battling to overcome dyslexia. He would tell them that they had to challenge themselves to work around it and to not let dyslexia limit them.
He is remembered on the Dyxlexia Institute of Indiana website with his most valuable campaign to encourage those with dyslexia. A video of his inspirational message is at the DII site: www.diin.org.
“Dyslexia doesn’t stop me,” Wilson stated.
Racing – not dyslexia – defined Justin.
Extremely tall as a Formula One driver, his first ride with Minardi was in a race car that was built around his dimensions. Underperformance eventually landed him a ride with Jaguar for the rest of his only season in Formula One.
He won four CART races and three Verizon IndyCar Series races with his last win was the Texas 500 in 2012 for team owner Dale Coyne. He never really raced in high quality equipment until this season with Andretti Autosport. He had his best start, eighth place, in this year’s 500. His best Indianapolis 500 finishes were fifth in 2013 and seventh in 2012 with Coyne and seventh in 2010 with Reinbold.
He is one of only three race car drivers to compete at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the Formula One United States Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500 and the Verizon IndyCar Series Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He scored the only point at Indianapolis in his one-year Formula One career before moving to Indy cars.
He was signed recently by team owner Michael Andretti for the final five IndyCar races of the season with the goal of driving again for Andretti in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. In his late 30s, Wilson’s IndyCar career was ascending.
Justin was respected by his IndyCar competitors for his driving skills, engineering knowledge and just plain honesty when giving advice to them or to IndyCar officials.
“Losing his life in an incident that was beyond his control is difficult to accept,” said Bobby Rahal, IndyCar co-team owner and 1986 “500” winner. “His expert driving skills and keen awareness of all that was going on around him could not save him. We mourn his passing and will honor his memory as a championship-caliber driver who left us way too soon.”
“More important than his driving ability was his approachable personality, his calm spirit, and the respect he earned throughout the racing community for the tremendous person, friend, father and husband he was,” stated Doug Boles, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Justin made innumerable friends and admirers throughout the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar communities.”
Justin kept on giving even in death. He saved six lives Tuesday as an organ donor, according to his brother Stefan Wilson.
Wilson is survived by his wife Julia, and young daughters Jane and Jessica. He considered Sheffield, England as home but recently lived in Denver.
The Verizon IndyCar Series has established a memorial fund for the family: Wilson Children’s Fund, c/o IndyCar, 4551 W. 16th Street, Indianapolis, IN 46222.