SONOMA (AP) — IndyCar drivers got back to work Friday, climbing into their cars as a distraction — albeit a temporary one — from their grief over Justin Wilson’s death.
Wilson died Monday of a head injury suffered a day earlier when he was stuck by debris from another car at Pocono Raceway. The 37-year-old British driver left behind a wife and two young daughters.
The loss of one of the most popular drivers in the paddock has been difficult for his peers, but many said Wilson would have wanted Sunday’s season finale at Sonoma Raceway to go on.
“People don’t realize for us, we’ve been doing this a long time. It’s our most comfortable position,” said three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves. “We’ve still got to remember it’s racing. There is the unfortunate danger factor of it. I do feel it’s the best place ever where I’m in control, that I feel I can do whatever I want. That’s why it’s the best way to be here today.”
Castroneves is one of six drivers in mathematical contention for the championship, although Team Penske teammate Juan Pablo Montoya has the title within his reach. Montoya takes a 34-point lead over Graham Rahal into the race, which is worth double points.
Even if Rahal wins, Montoya only has to finish third to deny the American his first major championship.
Although the championship contenders tried Friday to put the focus on the title race, Wilson’s death hung heavy on the paddock.
Decals honoring Wilson have been distributed to teams to place on the cars, and T-Shirts were creating with the same logo with 100 percent of the sales proceeds going to a fund for Wilson’s daughters.
Both Honda and Firestone have made results-based pledges for the weekend, with a combined $95,000 potentially going to the fund.
Oriol Servia will drive Wilson’s car at his family’s request in Sunday’s season finale at Sonoma Raceway. The family initially wanted NASCAR driver AJ Allmendinger, one of Wilson’s closest friends and a former teammate, but car owner Michael Andretti said Allmendinger passed.
“I have known and raced Justin for more than 10 years,” said Servia. “I have an enormous amount of respect for him as a racer, but his qualities as a human were definitely an inspiration to anyone who ever met him.
“I truly feel he was one of those souls who has evolved a lot more than the rest of us. He will be greatly missed.”
The drivers will do their best to honor Wilson’s memory, and the return to the track was cathartic in their healing process. The last fatality was Dan Wheldon in the 2011 season finale, and the drivers had nothing but idle time on their hands to mourn the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner.
A race this weekend, with a championship on the line, was exactly what most of them n
“The best thing we can do is get back in the car,” said championship contender Josef Newgarden. “It’s the tough part about the sport, it almost seems wrong, but it’s the right thing to do. You’ve got to keep going. That’s what Justin would want.
“That’s how I would view it, too, if something would happen to me. I don’t want anyone to slow down. Keep doing your thing, enjoy it, love it. I think racers all feel like that universally. It’s the best medicine.”
The series is still confronted with questions about safety, though, particularly in a season that has been marred with various accidents. Three cars went airborne in the preparation for the Indianapolis 500, James Hinchcliffe suffered a life-threatening injury in his own crash at Indy, and Ryan Briscoe went airborne during the race at California that drivers complained was too dangerous.
Now the series is being questioned about the safety of open cockpits following Wilson’s death.
“It’s something obviously that needs to be looked at,” reigning champion Will Power said. “I don’t know whether a closed cockpit would ever be possible. I think it’s the last big step in safety for open-wheel racing, what do you do with an exposed head?”
But Montoya insisted most drivers feel safe in a race car, and that the probability of getting hurt is far lower than an incident occurring on their drive home.
“I do feel 100 percent safe,” he said. “Accidents can happen. To be honest with you, somebody asked me the same question the other day — I probably have better chances racing here than going home in your car.”