Justin Wilson was seriously injured in IndyCar crashes twice in a two-year span. Both times, the veteran driver returned to competition unwavering in his love for the sport and his acceptance of the risks.
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The British driver was adamant that he and his wife understood the dangers of his profession. But he loved racing so much, he fought hard to return from a broken back in 2011, and a broken pelvis and bruised lung in 2013.
Wilson knew that death was a possibility in the dangerous world of auto racing.
On Monday night, he died in a Pennsylvania hospital of a head injury suffered one day earlier when he was hit in the helmet with a piece of debris from another car at Pocono Raceway. He was 37.
“You’ve got to know the risks and work out if those risks are acceptable,” Wilson told The Associated Press after breaking his back in 2011. “To me, it’s acceptable. But I’m not going to stop trying to improve it. All the drivers, this IndyCar, we’re always trying to make it safer, but at the end of the day, it’s a race car. We’re racing hard, we’re racing Indy cars and it’s fast. When it goes wrong, it can get messy.”
A popular driver who took a leading role on safety and other issues following the 2011 death of Dan Wheldon, Wilson spent most of this year clawing to get into an Indy car. He announced a two-race deal for Indianapolis only in March with Andretti Autosport, and the agreement eventually swelled into an additional five races.
That perseverance the last few years was just one of the many things that earned Wilson tremendous respect in the paddock.
“What Justin’s gone through over the past couple years, how hard he worked to get back into the car this season, and the opportunity that he had with Andretti, I think he exemplified the reason we all love doing this,” said Ed Carpenter, who raced against Wilson on Sunday. “He fought so hard to come back. He was doing what he loved to do, what we all love to do, and why we’ll all be back competing in his honor in the near future.”
Wilson, who lived outside Denver in Longmont, Colorado, with his wife, Julia and two daughters, died in a hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He was airlifted there Sunday after he was hit in the head with a piece of debris, and his car veered into an interior wall at the track.
“Can’t even begin to describe the loss I feel right now. He was my Brother, my best friend, my role model and mentor. He was a champion!” his younger brother, Stefan, also an IndyCar driver, tweeted. Stefan Wilson said his brother’s organs would be donated.
The last IndyCar driver to die from an on-track incident was two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Wheldon, who was killed in the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas after his head hit a post in the fence when his car went airborne.
After Wheldon’s death, Wilson became one of three driver representatives to serve as a liaison between the competitors and IndyCar. It was no surprise: The 6-foot-4 Wilson, easily the tallest in the series, was well liked.
“Justin’s elite ability to drive a race car was matched by his unwavering kindness, character and humility — which is what made him one of the most respected members of the paddock,” said Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co., the parent company of IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Wilson’s death reignited concerns about the safety of IndyCar. The series has been under fire since the season opener at St. Petersburg, Florida, where debris from a car sailed over the grandstands and struck a fan in the concession area. The woman hit said in a lawsuit filed against IndyCar her skull was fractured. She contends she fell backward and hit her head after she was struck by debris.
IndyCar made a series of rule changes to fortify the many parts and pieces on its new aerodynamic body kits, but the nose that flew off of Sage Karam’s car Sunday is not a tethered part. The series was also forced into action during the buildup to the Indianapolis 500 after three cars went airborne during practices.
“Motor racing is never going to be 100 percent safe. If it was, there would be nobody in the grandstands,” Mario Andretti told AP on Monday. “But we’ve come a very, very far way in terms of safety. Now this will be looked at it and addressed appropriately.”
Andretti called this “a perfect storm, and the thing that every driver fears: getting caught up in somebody else’s mistake.”
Wilson was the 12th car to pass through Karam’s crash scene. As he approached, the nose section appeared to bounce several times along the track. It came down in the open cockpit of Wilson’s car, then shot straight back into the air.
Now being debated again is the potential use of canopy similar to the one used in fighter jets to shield the drivers in the open cockpits. A year ago, IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe was left with a concussion when he was hit in the head by debris. Formula One driver Jules Bianchi sustained a massive head injury in a crash last October and spent nine months in a coma before he died last month.
“We have open cockpits, we are exposed to what happened to Justin every single day we are in the car,” Tony Kanaan, who leads the IndyCar driver council, told The Associated Press on Monday. “Until the entire world — FIA, IndyCar, Formula One — until they come together and find something to help that, this is the danger we face. It’s the unfortunate risk of our product.”