Justin Wilson is being head-hunted. After another season, another team, another set of performances that show he deserves a top seat in the IZOD IndyCar Series, people who make things happen are at last taking notice. Why now?
“It's a little bit of everything,” says Wilson. “Some drivers are out of contract this year so teams are able to look at their options. Also, the economy's getting a little bit brighter and people are speculating. And I think the biggest part is that the state of IndyCar has improved and a lot of that is because of IZOD and a positive attitude from the leadership.”
That's a typical explanation from someone whose talent is matched by humility. The crucial bit he omitted was that he's now fully recognized as a top talent despite consistently being a victim of circumstance. One (maybe two) of Wilson's rivals could have faced the hard times with similar equanimity; one (maybe two) of his rivals could have made similar-quality lemonade from the lemons he's been given. But no one could have done both. No one, that is, except Justin Wilson.
Never one to play the victim – one of Wilson's most consistent phrases is, “That's the way it goes,” – he'll doubtless feel a touch embarrassed to have his misfortunes revisited (so look away now, dude). But they are crucial to understanding why he has been, for so long, IndyCar's best-kept secret.
Back in 2005, as a Champ Car World Series sophomore driver, he took two wins and two pole positions for a sophomore team, RuSPORT, and ended the year third in the championship. Only when teammate AJ Allmendinger (still seeking his first win) left mid-2006 to join Forsythe and scored five victories in nine races, did it become clear what miracles Wilson had been performing to regularly threaten and occasionally beat perennial winner Sebastien Bourdais.
At RSPORT (a misguided and disruptive attempt to merge the promising RuSPORT with the sickly Rocketsports Racing) in '07, Wilson finished runner-up in the title race for a second consecutive year. When four-time champion Bourdais decided to follow his Formula 1 dream, leaving a door open at Newman/Haas, Wilson ran through it…and met the Champ Car/Indy Racing League merger coming the other way.
“That set all the ex-Champ Car guys back quite a bit,” Wilson comments in his usual understated manner. “We all had to learn these tracks and these cars. The teams that coped best were KV Racing and Newman/Haas, but it was still a difficult transition. Still, we made a good go of it [see sidebar] and got a win.”
“It's a shame we couldn't continue together, but the world economy took a massive hit and that affected everything from the late summer of '08. As well as the merger and the cost of the merger for all the ex-Champ Car teams, finding sponsorship for an Indy car team went from difficult to pretty much impossible.”
NHR replaced Wilson with the (funded) Robert Doornbos and Wilson went into the winter without a ride.
“Then someone put me in contact with Dale Coyne, and I saw Dale was serious – he'd hired Bill Pappas as race engineer. It would still be tough, but I thought if I went to Dale Coyne Racing and we made good progress, that would show people what I could do. And it paid off.”
The Watkins Glen win – where the Wilson/DCR combo flat beat Penske and Ganassi – was the high point in a year spent mixing it with IndyCar's Goliaths. Justin liked working with Coyne and Pappas, and reckons his shock and damper man, Glen Knabenshue, is the best he's ever worked with. But disagreement over the length of his contract – as well as the exit of Pappas to KV Racing and Knabenshue to HVM – pushed Justin toward assessing some of the teams that were assessing him. He still needed to bring money, but he was helped in that regard when Jim Sexton of Z-Line Designs had elected to stick with Justin rather than DCR.
Within a week of visiting Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's shop in Indy,Wilson signed a contract with the team co-owned by Dennis Reinbold and former racer Robbie Buhl and this season he has (predictably) shown his worth. Car No. 22 has fought for wins at St. Petersburg, Long Beach and Toronto. He took pole in the latter event, too, and looked set for victory until dirty tires on a late-race restart caused him to lose the lead and then spin. Justin's post-race acceptance of full responsibility and his apology to the D&R team live on TV was typical of the man, and none of the media reports were too harsh on him. Maybe the writers were recalling the many times throughout his U.S. open-wheel career that he'd raced his cars into positions they didn't deserve.
Try handing that mollifier directly to Wilson, and he's uncomfortable. Finally he concedes, “Yeah, OK, over the years, we've been dealt some shitty cards, but what can you do? You can't say, ‘I want better cards than this or I won't play.' You just use what you're given and accept that the process will take time and patience. I think people are starting to see what I can bring to the table. The conversations I've had have been quite encouraging.”
As a result, Wilson has reached a career crossroads – again. After five different teams in five years (six in six if you include the morphing of RuSPORT into RSPORT), he's in a dilemma. He has the opportunity to stay at Dreyer & Reinbold – the team owners want him to stay – and Wilson says that his present employers are one of his prime options.
The others? One of the strongest rumors through September linked him with KV Racing. The Kevin Kalkhoven/Jimmy Vasser-owned team has endured the season from hell in 2010 (Mario Moraes, Takuma Sato, and EJ Viso had, between them, racked up one podium finish and approximately 35 crashes). The thinking is that Lotus, currently sponsoring Sato's car, sees Wilson as a good fit for marketing in the U.S. But if Wilson brings little (if any) money to KV, that will likely necessitate at least one, maybe two, paying drivers as teammates. Does he want to be in a team that's spending money, time and resources fixing crash damage from rookies – or experienced drivers who still drive like rookies?
What about Andretti Autosport whose 7-Eleven sponsorship is up for renewal? Should that not happen, loopholes may be sought in the team's contract with the relatively expensive Tony Kanaan, thus opening another door for Wilson.
Another strong contender for Justin's services should be Panther Racing, which is on the verge of dropping Dan Wheldon. The 2005 IndyCar champion's one-dimensional in-cockpit abilities – excellent on ovals, slow on road/street courses – ensure he has no chance at winning the overall title in a championship split roughly 50/50 between these two basic disciplines. Wilson, on the other hand, might find Panther's road course setup is a few tweaks away from race-winning pace. And, if it isn't, his technical feedback will be invaluable.
For Justin, Panther would also tick the box of having a strong oval car. At the Indy 500, three Dreyer & Reinbold cars (including his) led several laps, but it took until late in the season to find a satisfactory setup for banked 1.5-mile tracks. As a result, Wilson worries he's perceived as an incomplete IndyCar driver.
“I think people are nervous about my oval experience,” he admits. “That was one reason I went to D&R: they have lots of experience in that area, and finally it's starting to pay off – seventh at Chicago and 11th at Kentucky. It was good to beat some typical oval front-runners at Chicago. I feel I know what to do on ovals and obviously I gain more experience every time I do them.”
Unless Chip Ganassi or Roger Penske offer him a ride, Wilson appears to have a straight choice. He could go for continuity (rare for him) at Dreyer & Reinbold and tailor the engineering structure to suit him – but making such demands may be too contrary to Wilson's personality. Or he could go to Panther where the car's strong on ovals, unproven elsewhere, and where he may not have a teammate with whom to pool setup info.
For motorsport fans, either would work. Because it's time for IndyCar's best-kept secret to show everyone what he can do.
The title that got away?
After seeing Sebastien Bourdais win four consecutive Champ Car titles with Newman/Haas Racing, Justin Wilson was delighted to take his place in 2008 as the Frenchman headed to Formula 1. However, just as he got himself into the series' prime drive, the Champ Car World Series merged with the Indy Racing League, and so began a year of learning the Dallara-Honda chassis.
Craig Hampson, who had been Bourdais' race engineer, has no doubts Wilson would have fought for the 2008 Champ Car title.
“Justin and Sebastien ask for different things from a car, but they're both intense competitors, race winners, and had already succeeded in high levels of motorsport. So we had every expectation of continuing our winning ways with Justin. You have to adapt to a new driver, but we were confident about what Justin would bring to the table. Plus, we had employed both of the guys who had race engineered for him at RuSPORT. It was about as good a situation as it could be.”
Wilson and NHR rapidly came to grips with the Dallara-Honda on road and street tracks, and won at Detroit in late summer. But thoughts of what might have been still surfaced. In April, when the merged calendars clashed and sent the IRL incumbents down to Motegi, Champ Car hosted its finale at Long Beach, giving one last run for the Panoz DP01-Cosworth. Wilson put it on pole, but then…
“It was such a shame that the engine failed in the race,” sighs Hampson. “It was such a deflating way to end the Champ Car era for us. I think Justin and Will Power would have had a very entertaining race to the flag, and it would have been a fantastic way to sign off the series.”