My dream has always been to race at the Indy 500, with my older brother, Justin, alongside me.
It’s been my dream ever since I was a kid and I would stand on the grass bank cheering on Justin in his races. Ever since I turned nine and hopped into my own kart. Ever since I came to see my first Indy 500 in 2009 and drove under the drag and came through the tunnel, when the hundreds of thousands of fans and the electricity hit you all at once.
That’s been my dream.
I signed a contract earlier this spring, and will be making my Indy 500 debut on Sunday.
But Justin won’t be there. And that makes it all bittersweet.
Racing has been a part of my family for years, starting with our dad — though Justin and I never got to see him compete. His career ended in the ’70s, before we were born, when his throttle stuck open during a race and he crashed, breaking both of his legs and his back. Despite this, he never tried to keep his sons away from the track. At the same time, he never pushed us toward the sport — it happened naturally, it was our own choice.
In our house in Sheffield, England, he proudly displayed this one picture. It’s of him starting in the front row on the pole, with James Hunt, who would later go on to become a Formula One Champion, just on the outside. To us, Dad was a legend. And before either of us ever got inside cars of our own, Justin and I were hooked on racing.
And because I never saw my dad on the track, I looked up to Justin all the more. He was 11 years older than me, so we had kind of a different relationship than most siblings. Justin was never overbearing, or pushy, and he would never tell me what to do. He’d just give me advice and hope I’d learn what to do on my own — which was great for me, because I hated having to do what others told me to. I wanted to make my own decisions and learn from my own mistakes.
In a way, we were a perfect match. Where Justin was quiet and soft-spoken, I was stubborn and pushed limits. Justin didn’t say much, and I talked enough for the both of us … and usually ended up eating humble pie.
Most of those servings came — where else — at the racetrack. As a kid, I’d go to Justin’s races and yell at the top of my lungs, cheering on my big brother. For years I didn’t know people actually lost races, because Justin always won, and he always made it look so easy.
So when it came time to start my own career, I went in with my typical bravado, Yes, yes, yes, I know what I’m doing. But as always, I’d be eating my own words, with Justin’s ignored advice hanging in the air.
“What d’you think you did wrong there?” he said to me while I was still in my car after having lost a race in 2011.
I climbed out, pulled off my helmet and saw him just looking back at me. There was no anger or frustration on his face. And he wasn’t really waiting for a response, either — we both knew what I had done wrong. Rain wasn’t in the forecast, but the whole morning it looked like the skies were about to open. And a little before the race, they did. Not too much, but just enough that I made the quick decision to put wets (special tires for the rain) on my car.
“Not sure you need them,” Justin said.
But I thought I knew better. And as always, Justin was right. Throughout the race, I couldn’t get the proper grip on the track. I had reacted too drastically. Another lesson learned. The hard way.
Ignoring his advice was a funny way to show it, but really all I wanted was to be like Justin. My memories of childhood are of following him around the track, like his shadow. And at home we’d spend hours and hours playing racing video games against each other. One Christmas we spent the whole holiday playing this one racing game. The setting? The Indy 500. And you know those games are really all about setting lap-record times. Claiming your throne. Being 11 years younger, I loved — I relished! — those handful of times when I set the record. (And trust me when I say there were no more than a handful of times.) But my favorite part would be sitting there watching him beat my time. I loved it. Challenge accepted.
Justin only got better on the actual track, too. He won the first Formula Palmer Audi championship in 1998 when he was 20, then the FIA International Formula 3000 title in 2001. Two years later, he made it to Formula One.
Because I never saw my dad on the track, I looked up to Justin all the more.
My brother, the Formula One driver.
That 2003 F/1 season started in Australia. I practically counted down the days to the first race. I was only 13 or so and being back in England, I had to pretty much stay up all night to see the qualifiers and then watch the race. It was incredible. I couldn’t believe it. And for the rest of the season, I was glued to the TV.
The F/1 schedule did make keeping in touch hard. And it only got more difficult when Justin moved to the States the following year to begin his IndyCar career. By that time I was already on my way with my own racing career. Like Justin, I graduated from karts, to Formula Palmer Audi.
When Justin would come home for the holidays, I would quiz him on all his stories from racing in America. I’d grown up a bit, but listening to Justin talk about the turns, the courses, the drivers, I was a little kid again.
And his best stories by far were the ones he told about the Indy 500.
Justin raced in his first Indy 500 in 2008, and it felt like he had finally hit the big time. I’d love to listen to him talk about what was happening out on track, what he felt in the car — the the things I couldn’t see on TV.
My favorite race was the 2013 Indy 500. Justin had an issue early in the race, but worked his way from the back of the field all the way to near the front. With only a few laps left, he entered his final pit stop. Justin was in the acceleration lane — the flat, low-grip apron around the bottom of the racetrack in Turns 1 and 2 — as he left pit road.. The leaders were on the main track and gaining on him. He should have re-entered the pack somewhere between 10th and 15th position. But somehow he kept pace with the leaders and re-entered in fifth position, right ahead of Helio Castroneves. He still should have dropped a few more places, since he was coming in from the pits on cold tires, but Justin held the car wide-open. It even looked like he was going to go on to challenge for the win if not for the late caution, which ended the race. He came in fifth. It was an incredible result. But didn’t make sense. It didn’t seem possible.
“Well, it was a bit sketchy, but it’s the last 20 laps of the Indy 500, so you just gotta give it everything.”
He said it with a huge grin. We laughed, and I’m not sure who was prouder of what he accomplished that day.
Justin really was an incredible driver. He was doing far more than he should have been with the cars he was driving. He was taking cars that should’ve been finishing 20th, 21st, 22nd, and getting top five finishes, podiums and wins. He was just that good of a driver.
After his rookie year, I had to see it for myself. So in the winter of 2008, I came to visit Justin in the States for a few weeks. And in his typical way, Justin dropped some casual advice.
“You should move over here. You could make a career over here.”
I’d been on the fence about it for a while — not on whether to race in America— but rather when to make the move, trying to decide when would be the best time to leave England. Like with everything else, I wanted to make the decision on my own. Justin didn’t say much else, but rather took me down to Daytona to see the 24-hour race and show me around.
“Let’s just check it out and you can see for yourself.”
The next season, I raced the Indy Lights series in the U.S. The year after, I moved to Indianapolis permanently.
Justin. Right again.
Unfortunately, things didn’t exactly take off for me. I had a couple seasons of Indy Lights under my belt and by 2012, after finishing third in the championship, I felt I was ready for the jump to IndyCar. But like many other drivers, I wasn’t able to find an opening or the funds to do it. The sport is getting more and more expensive, and it’s only getting harder and harder for young drivers, especially if, like me, they’re from a working-class families. Luckily, I managed to get a team and a sponsor for the 2013 Grand Prix of Baltimore and ended up as Justin’s teammate. We were there together, and I thought it’d be the springboard I needed to get into IndyCar full-time. But once again in 2014, I was stuck on the sideline.
You start thinking, Am I wasting my time here? Am I supposed to be here? Should I keep racing? But then you also think about the future. Thirty years from now, did I want my own children to ask, Why did you stop? I didn’t want to have to answer with, “I gave up.”
Call it what you will — stupidity or my typical stubbornness — but I decided to give it one last go.
And if I was going to give it one last shot, I had to aim at the 100th running of the Indy 500 in 2016. This is the race. Let’s put everything I’ve got into this over the next year, and if doesn’t work out, it’ll be time to move on. Justin knew I was struggling, though I was still giving it everything I had. He knew this time he needed to encourage my single-mindedness.
“Go for it! Turn left, don’t lift and don’t add steering after the apex, you have the ability.”
So I got to work on a plan on how I’d get to the Indy 500, and shopped it around to companies and teams I thought might be interested. By that time, Justin had started the 2015 IndyCar season. The good thing about not racing myself meant that I could spend the weekends cheering him on, just like I used to. Except for one weekend in August, when instead of going to Justin’s race I was going to be in meetings with some race teams in Virginia. By race day on Sunday, Aug. 23, I was back home with my fiancée in Indianapolis to catch the race on TV.
That morning, we had gone to look at houses — our wedding was coming up that November. Walking around, I felt something I hadn’t felt in a while: That things were finally heading in the right direction. I was getting ready to officially launch the Indy 500 plan I’d been working on, and Justin was finally on a really good race team with Andretti Autosports. I was pumped for him. He really deserved an opportunity like that.
As we sat down to watch the race from Pocono Raceway, I just couldn’t help but think, You know what? I’m happy. This feels good. It felt like things were set up on this perfect dining table, all the plates, everything lined up.
And then, all at once, someone just came and smashed everything to pieces.
With 21 laps left in the race, Justin was struck in the head with a piece of debris from a crash ahead of him.
Growing up around the racetrack, you know when things are bad. The moment I saw that Justin’s car was out of control — it had just veered sharply to the inside after the debris had hit him — I knew that he was unconscious. I knew it wasn’t good.
As they showed the replay, I was already shaking. I was already in tears.
I need to get out there. I need to be there.
A part of me felt like if I was there, I’d be able to do something, be able to change the outcome of this somehow. Like always, I was going to drown out what everyone else was saying. I could prove them wrong. I could change this.
But when we did get there later that day, there was nothing I could do. Justin had been airlifted to a local hospital. He had suffered a traumatic brain injury and died the following day.
As a driver, there are three ways to deal with the dangers of our sport. The first two are very similar: You either ignore the danger completely, not acknowledging the risk; or you believe that you’re invincible, that you’ll always be O.K. It happens to other people — it doesn’t happen to you.
The third, is that you acknowledge the danger and you accept what can happen. It’s just the risk that’s associated with this sport, and you weigh that risk against your love, your passion, your desire to keep racing. The result of that equation determines whether or not you climb back into the car.
I don’t know what mindset Justin had, but knowing how methodical he was and how much he loved this sport, I would expect him to fall into category three. For me, before Justin’s accident, I was certainly in the second group of drivers. I never thought anything bad could happen to me.
But in the days and weeks following Justin’s passing, my life was turned upside down. I wasn’t thinking about my own racing career or whether or not I would get back into a car. I just wanted Justin back. It was a time where I wanted to do nothing, except be there for the rest of the family as much as I could.
Still, I slowly turned my attention back to racing and back to my ambition to be in the 100th Indianapolis 500. The first thing I had to do was to confront the danger of the sport, there was no hiding in Category 2 anymore. I’d seen firsthand how dangerous this sport could be, and I had to accept them before I could return to an IndyCar cockpit.
Talking to my mum was difficult. She’d been around the track all our lives, too. For every race, she was there. But for her, it always meant something entirely different than it did for us. For us, it was getting in those cars, getting to those finish lines. For her, she wanted those finish lines too, but she wanted us to come home as well.
I knew if I let Justin’s accident define my career, he would be pretty disappointed.
She didn’t want me to go back.
I weighed it for a while. I spoke to my mum some more. But mostly, I thought about Justin. I’m so proud of Justin and so proud of who he was. But it was this sport that gave us the Justin that we knew. It made him the person that he was. If he hadn’t had this sport, it would have been like he was missing a part of himself.
I asked myself, Am I doing the right thing? How much does this sport mean to me? Should I keep racing?
I knew if I let Justin’s accident define my career, he would be pretty disappointed.
So, with Justin’s help again, I knew the answer. Yeah, this is something that I have to do. And I got back to work. I got back to the dream. Our dream.
Getting into the Indy 500 gave me something to focus on, something to help me grieve. In a way it helped me stay connected to Justin. At times it’s felt like he’s been watching, and that’s really pushed me, made me work even harder.
We didn’t know it at the time of his death, but Justin had registered to be an organ donor. That’s the real impact he left behind: Justin saved lives. Five people are here today that wouldn’t have been if not for him. Many more people have reached out to say that they’ve become donors because of Justin, so even more lives could potentially be saved. And as always, Justin nudged me in the right direction. I’ve become one, too.
In January I got a call from the Indiana Donor Network saying they wanted to help me get the word out and get me on the track for the Indy 500. In April I signed a contract with a team and sponsor. We’ve set a goal to spread awareness through our #Driven2SaveLives campaign, to get 2,500 new donors — playing off of Justin’s number 25. It’s the same number I’ll have at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday.
I never really imagined a situation where Justin wouldn’t be on the grid while I would. We never really spoke about racing against each other at the Indy 500. We just both felt it. We never really spoke about what it would have meant. We just knew.
It was the dream.
Now that it’s here and it’s real, the only person I wanted to talk to about it is Justin. I won’t get to tell him my stories. I won’t get to tell him about my race and compare stories. I won’t get to tell him how I pulled off an amazing maneuver.
I won’t have him giving me his advice in his own way. There were certain lessons throughout my career that Justin tried to teach me. And so many times, I didn’t want to listen. I wanted to do it on my own. But his lessons are starting to sink in now.
And when I’m racing on Sunday and a situation comes up, I’ll ask myself the same question that I have for the past eight months without him here.
How would Justin tackle this?
Visit driven2savelives.org for more information on Stefan Wilson and the #Driven2SaveLives campaign.