Giant-killers: IndyCar redemption for Wilson at Watkins Glen – IndyCar

When Justin Wilson delivered victory for Dale Coyne Racing at Watkins Glen in IndyCar back in 2009, it was not only a case of beating the big boys but also putting right the wrongs of a missed opportunity from the opener at St. Petersburg

No open-wheel driver of the past 30 years in the United States has had his skills so poorly represented by the statistics book as Justin Wilson.

Just seven wins in his tragically foreshortened career is a gross misrepresentation of a talent that, had it ever been employed by one of the ‘big’ teams, could have allowed him to rack up four times that victory tally and earn a couple of championships.

But those wins were all special. In the Champ Car World Series he scored all three wins earned by the Colorado-based RuSPORT team which, like Wilson himself, arrived in the series in 2004 and was snapping at the heels of the big teams.

Wilson then scored the only win for RSPORT – an unhappy combination of RuSPORT and Rocketsports Racing – and following the Champ Car and Indy Racing League merger he claimed another for the legendary Newman/Haas outfit at Detroit in 2008.

But then, in 2009, Wilson triumphed in one of the most memorable IndyCar races of this century, giving Dale Coyne Racing its first ever victory at Watkins Glen.

The magic of the victory comes to life by revealing the events that led up to the triumph.

Wilson, the 2001 Formula 3000 champion, slotted into the underdog role almost from the moment he came across the Atlantic. Driving for the Conquest Racing team (above), he had achieved four top six finishes in the ’04 Champ Car season, and then joined RuSPORT.

After three seasons spent wrestling (and very occasionally beating) someone comparable talent driving for the best team, including Sebastien Bourdais at Newman/Haas Racing, Wilson leapt at the chance to replace the Frenchman, who was heading off to Formula 1 for 2008.

All Wilson’s effort that year seemed for naught during the off-season when the tanking global economy led to McDonald’s heavily reducing its funding of Newman/Haas

“Justin and Sebastien asked for different things from a car but they’re both intense competitors, race winners, and had already succeeded in high levels of motorsport,” says Craig Hampson, then Newman/Haas Racing’s star race engineer who is now at McLaren SP. “So we had every expectation of continuing our winning ways with Justin. You have to adapt to a new driver, but we were confident about what Justin would bring to the table. Plus we had employed both of the guys who had race engineered for him at RuSPORT. It was about as good a situation as it could be.”

But suddenly it wasn’t. The merger between Indy Racing League (IRL) and the Champ Car World Series was vital for the future of the US open-wheel scene and largely welcome, but inadvertently triggered the beginning of the end for some Champ Car teams, as the survivors had the uphill struggle of learning the IRL’s Dallara chassis.

That rendered Wilson and team-mate Graham Rahal – who remarkably won on only the team’s second start at St. Pete – only fitfully fast on road and street courses, and mediocre on ovals. Suddenly Wilson’s prime opportunity to translate talent into results at Newman/Haas Racing had been turned into a major battle to score a memorable result.

All Wilson’s effort that year seemed for naught during the off-season when the tanking global economy, which coincided with the passing of movie star co-owner Paul Newman, led to McDonald’s heavily reducing its funding of Newman/Haas. The golden arches moved over to Rahal’s car full-time and ex-Formula 1 driver Robert Doornbos was put in the second NHR entry.

Wilson, who rightfully felt he had done a whole lot right and not a lot wrong in 2008, was now left casting around for a ride.

A marriage of convenience creates a perfect partnership

At the same time, perennial minnow Dale Coyne Racing was also looking for a driver, having decided to cut down to one full-time entry. Coyne had ditched Bruno Junqueira and Mario Moraes, the latter of whom would take his funding to KV Racing. Junqueira, who had done a fine job for DCR in 2007 driving the Panoz Champ Car by earning three podiums, had never looked the same guy in an IRL Dallara in ’08, even though he was crucial in guiding the team’s set-ups for ovals.

Coyne hired Bill Pappas who, over the previous 15 years, had been a winning race engineer for former Indycar stars Jimmy Vasser, Gil de Ferran and Juan Pablo Montoya, winning the Indianapolis 500 with the latter in 2000. With that signing, suddenly it became obvious that Coyne was ready to step up and make a big impression in his 25th year of open-wheel racing, but only the second under Indy Racing League regulations.

It took just one test for the trio to gel and became a mutual admiration society.

“Bill liked the idea of pushing us further up the learning curve with this car, and Justin obviously has a great talent for the twisty stuff, but also has this real fire in him which we needed for qualifying,” Coyne said at the time.

Pappas, now IndyCar’s vice president of race engineering, added: “I don’t see being a small team as a handicap in this series. You don’t have managers or departments within departments. You just sit down with two or three guys and say, ‘Look, we’ve got to get this done.”

His verdict on his driver? “Justin is incredibly talented. On a road or street course, we just need to get the wheels on straight and he can do the rest!”

Missing a winning start brings a false dawn

They almost won their first race together, the 2009 season-opener in St. Petersburg, leading more laps than anyone.

But Wilson made a slight mistake on the last turn before a restart with 14 laps to go, lost momentum briefly, and had to cede the lead to Ryan Briscoe’s Team Penske entry into Turn 1. Further around that lap, he was further demoted to third by Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Vision Racing car. Still, from a wider perspective, a podium finish wasn’t a bad start for the new partnership.

An opportunity was squandered at Long Beach when the DCR car was an innocent victim in a stupid but typical pile-up at the hairpin – Wilson believed he would have been third that day – and then the next six races, all ovals, were inevitably mediocre for the team as a whole. The ninth round was Watkins Glen.

There was a test on the classic 3.37-mile road course beforehand, and Wilson went from depressed to happy during the day as the team whittled its deficit to the Penske and Ganassi cars – which had won the first eight races of the season – from large to minimal. Sure enough, come qualifying, Wilson delivered with a front-row grid slot, outpaced only by Briscoe.

“Justin doesn’t make the same mistake twice so we probably didn’t need to be coaching him” Dale Coyne

Wilson comfortably held second at the start, and then started hounding the Australian. Exiting Turn 1 with a little more speed on lap 4, the Coyne car was tied to the Penske rear wing down the hill and through the fast, no-margin sweepers, and hit the back straight with a tad more momentum. Wilson ducked out of Briscoe’s slipstream, drew level and had the inside for the Bus Stop chicane that followed. Then he was off and ready to dominate.

Pitstop sequences aside, the Coyne car continued leading and, following the final tyre changes for all leading cars, he remained up front, taking the lead for the final time on lap 46 of the 60-lap race.

But a parade to the finish was cancelled when a backmarker shunted on lap 52 and brought out the caution flags. For the lap 54 restart, the Coyne car would be tailed by a gang of rivals led by Briscoe.

“We’re going to do a restart, we’ve got a fast guy behind us who was awful fast yesterday, but Justin’s done a great job, so we’ll see what happens and hope for the best,” said a smiling but clearly nervous Coyne to ABC’s pitlane reporter.

“We’re David and there’s two Goliaths. Of course it makes it special. The top two teams have won every race this year. It would be good to win one.”

Away from the TV, Coyne was being extra cautious and later revealed the tension on the radio waves.

“Two laps before we went green, I told Bill to remind Justin over the radio about St. Petersburg,” said Coyne. “Bill said to Justin, ‘right, we need a good restart, don’t need a repeat of St. Petersburg,’ suddenly it’s all quiet at the other end of the radio, and then there’s this sigh and a downbeat ‘OK’.

“Pretty funny, but only afterwards. At the time we were dead serious. But Justin doesn’t make the same mistake twice so we probably didn’t need to be coaching him that much.”

When the green dropped for the final time with six laps to go, Wilson scampered off while Briscoe, attempting to get his harder-compound Firestones up to temperature, initially struggled just to keep his Penske under him and Scott Dixon behind him.

It gave Wilson the opportunity to pull out four seconds in the space of three laps, to hold a comfortable margin until the chequered flag, winning by 4.99 seconds.

“It took too long!” said an exultant Coyne after a quarter-century of struggle. “We’ve been trying hard. We put a good group of people together this year. We knew Justin was a strong road racer. We almost showed it at St. Pete. We showed it here big time.

“We had podiums with Bruno in that last year of Champ Car but each time he was coming from the back and we had to get him up front through strategy. Our Watkins Glen win, we went and took.”

Reflecting on his most famous glory on a day a David beat all the Goliaths, Wilson felt there was no reliance on luck, which many of these triumphs are often laced with.

“I thought we could do well on some of the road courses, but I expected it to be a little bit hit ‘n’ miss,” Wilson said. “I thought that maybe we’d get lucky one time – you know, one of those races where a third place unexpectedly turns into first place.

“So I was very pleased and very satisfied that it wasn’t luck that brought us our win. It was pure speed.”