James: Justin Wilson’s death cruel reminder of sport’s danger
Justin Wilson sat at a table in a hospitality tent nestled inside the paddock at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this March. He was intermittently grinning widely and squinting to watch a television monitor as the din surrounding him indicated practice had begun.
The Englishman was left behind at the start of the IndyCar season, but Andretti Autosport had announced a deal that morning to put him in a car for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and 99th Indianapolis 500. He had months to wait for his turn, but being close enough to feel the action in his chest seemed to comfort him.
A consummate professional and true decent soul in a sport where projected selfishness is a skill and a necessity, Wilson had trouble fully concentrating on his monitor because of the steady traffic of well-wishers or reporters who noticed and stopped for a cordiality.
I asked, in so many words, how much he’d rather be doing instead of watching.
Memories like that make days like today sadder. And they make you wonder why they ever want to get back out there at all. But they always do.
Wilson, 37, had finished second in his fifth race of the season at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. In his sixth race, he suffered a severe head injury after he was struck by a piece of debris following a crash by Sage Karam at Pocono Raceway on Sunday.
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Wilson’s death, announced on Monday by series head Mark Miles at a brief news conference at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, won’t be the last in motor sports despite the good faith efforts of those charged with keeping drivers safe. The well-liked and beloved will fall.
Just four years ago, another popular and affable Englishman, a former series champion and Indianapolis 500 winner seeking a return to full-time employment, had sat under the same tent in St. Petersburg, his compressed energy transmitted from his core to his tapping foot as the 2011 season began without him. Dan Wheldon would announce that weekend a deal to race in the Indianapolis 500 with Bryan Herta Autosport. He won it, for the second time. And in his third and final start of the season, a contract with Andretti and a full-time return to the series waiting in 2012, Wheldon was killed in the final race of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
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It’s sad that in a sport so inherently dangerous as IndyCar, just four years passes for a long time between such awful moments. And it’s cruel to consider the similarities between the last two fatalities in the series.
This isn’t about they died doing what they loved. It’s about reconciling feelings over a game so intoxicating to those who so badly want to be a part of it, and so cruel to those who care about them.
And it’s about the memories that make days like today even sadder.
He smiled again, rolled his eyes and said something no one could hear against the roar. But his answer was obvious. He very much wanted to be there.