INDIANAPOLIS -- Stefan Wilson knows he’s not alone in a race car.
He remembers the words of his older brother, Justin, telling him to stay calm and focused.
Justin Wilson, one of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ most popular drivers, died in August 2015 after being struck by debris in a racing crash at Pocono, Pennsylvania.
When Stefan Wilson’s No. 25 Driven2SaveLives - KVRT Chevrolet starts Sunday’s 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, he will shift his attention to the challenge ahead.
That was one of the most important racing lessons learned from his brother.
“When we lost Justin, you have to ask that question: ‘Is this still something I want to do?’” Stefan said last week in Gasoline Alley.
The answer was obvious. Stefan, 11 years younger at 26, had been trying to find a ride for the Indy 500 since 2014.
“It was an easy question to answer,” he said. “But at the same time, it would be irresponsible not to ask myself that question. From there, I was really driven to be in this race to honor Justin. I was working hard to be in this race before last August. I thought I was working hard. After that, this became an obsession.
“I needed to be in this race. I needed to be able to show Justin that I made it.”
Stefan Wilson accomplished that goal when the rookie qualified 30th for the historic race. The Englishman’s sponsors include Driven2SaveLives, an initiative of the Indiana Donor Network as a tribute to Justin, who saved five lives with organ donation.
Justin Wilson started eight Indy 500s with a best finish of fifth in 2013 for Dale Coyne Racing. Stefan enjoyed visiting his brother in the garage during those times.
“Every day you come to the track, there are so many memories here with Justin, great memories, fun times,” Stefan said. “It’s weird to walk around the garage area. I’m so used to coming in here and walking into his garage and asking him how the day went. At the same time, I’m here to do a job. When I get it on pit lane, that goes away and I focus on the task at hand and just focus on doing my job as a driver.
“I miss him every day, but it’s great to be out here driving an Indy car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”
He appreciates more what he learned from his brother, now that Stefan is in the car. One side of Stefan’s helmet has a Justin design.
“There’s a lot of lessons that I’m picking up on now,” Stefan said. “A lot of things, staying calm, staying cool. That’s the biggest thing. It’s how you act on the outside, when you’re out of the car, and then your mindset in the car. You focus on the stuff that you can control and don’t get frustrated because, at this place, it’s a long month. Sometimes you’ll have a day where you don’t go the right way with the setup and it’s easy to get frustrated and lose concentration and that’s when mistakes happen.”
As he prepared to qualify last weekend, he remembered how different the situation looked from the outside looking in.
“Walking down the qualifying line, it brought back those memories,” Stefan said of watching his brother. “It was just kind of surreal to be on the other side of that and actually be the one climbing into the car. I kind of found a whole new respect for what he did.
“It’s real easy to walk down there and watch it all happen. Then when you’re actually on deck, you see the car finish its lap in front of you, your engine is started and you’re about to go, I wish I had a heart rate monitor on me because I think it would have been pretty high.”
Stefan raced in Indy Lights from 2009-12 with two wins in 32 starts. His only Verizon IndyCar Series start came in 2013 for Dale Coyne Racing, when he finished 16th at Baltimore. Justin, his teammate that day, finished fourth.
Justin won a total of seven Indy car races in his career. Stefan, who was 31st on the speed chart for today’s Miller Lite Carb Day practice with a best lap of 220.988 mph, realizes he has a lot to learn.
“He was just very focused and that’s what you have to be,” Stefan said. “It’s not easy out there. The car is moving around, you’ve got massive tail wind. The exit of Turn 1, it wants to push you up the track. On the entry to Turn 3, the car is on its nose. You’re just dealing with a lot of different handlings in one lap. You’re just not sure what it’s going to do next.
“This place, it takes a lot of experience. It’s not just about talent. You’ve got to be able to fine-tune the race car over the whole month and not get spooked because there are a couple of times during the month it likes to surprise you.”
Stefan’s goal is simple: run every lap he can and gain experience that he can hopefully apply to future runs.
Regardless of the result, Stefan is proud to be in this race.
“It means so much to be able to tell Justin, ‘Hey, I made it,’” he said.