It's probably of little solace to Justin that his refusal to lapse into a subservient role has also increased his popularity. He's many people's favorite driver, but he's also second- or third-favorite among those who primarily support Scott Dixon, Power, Dario Franchitti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, etc.
Off track, too, he's a great ambassador for any sponsor. It wouldn't be correct to say that public speaking comes as naturally to Wilson as driving to the limit of an Indy car, but nor is it a struggle for him. When talking into a microphone, you'll never catch him trying too hard to be cool or clever or funny; he's just Justin. And I've heard the top dogs from two of his principal sponsors in recent years use phrases such as, “The perfect guy for us,” “A class act,” and “I'm proud he carries our brand,” when speaking of JWil.
It's not hard to see why. Wilson has an ability to connect with sponsors' guests on a level that explains the sport but without sounding patronizing. Nor, at the end of these meet-and-greet sessions, does he scurry away, leaving those behind thinking, “We were just an obligation to him.” He'll sit and sign autographs, answer questions one-on-one, make people feel special, make them want to come back, make them realize why their company sponsors this team and this driver. (There are other unfairly undervalued drivers who are like this, too – Oriol Servia, Alex Tagliani and JR Hildebrand.)
I can also assure you that the sincere and polite Wilson you'll meet at the track or see interviewed on TV is exactly how he is at most other times; he genuinely struggles to be rude about people, his criticisms always coming across in a constructive manner. Now and then you can tell from his body language that he's upset but there's little point in bothering him on these occasions because he'll still have too much self-control to say anything controversial. Among all of the current IndyCar drivers, Wilson is the best at avoiding histrionics.
The best at avoiding excuses, too. When he spun away second place at Toronto in 2010, he immediately claimed responsibility: he'd gone off-line while warming his tires up, picked up too many marbles, and arrived at a heavy braking zone that suddenly felt like black ice. And this year, after Detroit, he was quick to praise his temporary teammate Mike Conway, who blew into town and blew everyone away.
“Mike was immediately comfortable with the setup we had,” Justin said on the phone a few days later. “I think he made one minor wing adjustment the whole weekend! But I wasn't happy when my car was set up the same as his. He likes a really stiff, over-reactive car, whereas I like mine more docile, and then I sort of provoke it into reacting, if you see what I mean. Also, the steering felt too numb for me, I couldn't feel what I want to through the front tires, so when I decided to ignore my instincts and power through the problem, I almost stuck it in the wall!”
When Conway rejoined the team for the next double-header in Toronto, it was a very different story. There, Dale Coyne's two cars lined up eighth and 20th for the first race, 13th and 23rd for the second – each time with Wilson ahead. Justin has comfortably eclipsed every teammate he's had since Allmendinger eight long years ago, so I wondered if Conway's Detroit performance had been a bit of a wake up call to a driver who'd gotten used to having teammates who weren't in his league. Typically, Justin's answer was more a defense of his compatriot's underwhelming performance north of the border.
“It's hard on double-header weekends,” he said, “because there's so little track time to try out changes if you don't like the basic setup, which is the problem I had in Detroit. Plus, Mike's not doing the whole season, which makes things even harder. So I'd say Toronto was more typical of how you'd expect anyone to struggle if they're only doing three or four races a year. Detroit was an exception, and he wrung everything out of it he could. Good on him.”