When the Verizon IndyCar Series season resumes at Pocono Raceway this weekend, drivers will be well aware they’re returning to the Pennsylvania track where they lost a good friend last year.
The last thing any driver needs to be reminded of is how dangerous racing can be. As if Justin Wilson’s death in the 2015 Pocono race wasn’t enough of an emotional strain, three-time Indianapolis 500 starter Bryan Clauson, a celebrated USAC champion, died Aug. 7 after suffering injuries the night before in a midget race in Belleville, Kan.
A Firestone tire test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the day after Clauson’s death meant inevitable questions would be asked. Drivers had also tested the week before at Pocono and some acknowledged they couldn’t help but think about Wilson, a popular Englishman and series regular for eight years until his death at age 37.
“I think about him all the time, but there (at Pocono) it’s right in your face,” Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay. “As race car drivers, we learn to compartmentalize it and just put it where it needs to be.”
And that’s out of their minds.
“We need to block it all out,” said Chip Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan. “We need to move on and make sure that we put on a good show for the people and for Justin and Justin’s family as well.”
After Wilson suffered a traumatic head injury when struck by debris, Scott Dixon and his wife, Emma, stayed at the hospital with Wilson’s wife and family. The Dixons were also there for the family of Dan Wheldon when the Englishman was killed in a 2011 crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. They moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., for a time to be with Wheldon’s family.
Dixon, a four-time series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing, was among those who tested at Pocono on Aug. 4.
“There’s a lot of emotions for a lot of people returning here, especially spending a fair bit of time after the race here as well in this area,” Dixon said. “It is hard. You obviously think about Justin and (wife) Jules and (children) Jane and Jess, the whole family. You just wish things were different, that’s all you can do.
“I have fond memories of Pocono as a whole, winning and sweeping the podium (in 2013). Obviously, for a lot of the drivers being such good friends with Justin, it definitely puts a bit of a damper on it. Not so much the track but just with what happened. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, it was just circumstances and such a strange thing to occur. … It’s just a memory that you wish was different.”
Ed Carpenter, the series’ only owner/driver, said he didn’t dwell on what happened to Wilson when returning for the recent Pocono test.
“I thought about Justin a lot more when it was his birthday than going back to Pocono,” he said, referring to Wilson’s July 31 birthdate. “It’s what we do. When you get in one of these cars, you have to have total focus. You can’t be thinking about what could happen to you or what has happened to your peers. When it gets to that point, then maybe it is time (to retire). We all love being in race cars and those us here especially love being in Indy cars.”
A day after Clauson’s death, Carpenter reiterated the driver mindset.
“Whenever we lose a peer, it’s something we all feel,” Carpenter said. “It’s never something you want to happen, but at the same time, especially those of us who have been around for a long time and have been through this too many times, it is a part of what we do.
“I think the (Verizon) IndyCar Series especially does a good job of pushing the envelope of safety advancements each and every year, but we’re never going to be able to guarantee this isn’t going to happen. It’s the nature of the beast. It’s a risk that we’re willing to take.”
Wilson Children’s Fund site updated
The Wilson Children’s Fund, created to support Justin’s wife Julia and daughters Jane and Jessica in his absence, remains open for donations at a freshly updated website.
A simple, single-page site was re-launced earlier this week to provide a secure platform for visitors to make contributions via PayPal. Established with the support of his wife Julia, WilsonChildrensFund.com serves one specific purpose: to guarantee the long-term financial needs of their daughters, Jane and Jess.
Visit http://wilsonchildrensfund.com/ for more information and to make a donation.