The cruelest part of death in IndyCar is that it always seems to strike the guys who have the big breaks ahead of them. Scott Brayton just before his best shot at the Indy 500. Jeff Krosnoff just as he was making waves. Gonzalo Rodriguez as he broke in with Penske. Greg Moore just weeks later after he too had signed with Penske for the following season. Tony Renna just getting started with Ganassi. Same with Paul Dana and RLL. Dan Wheldon had just won Indy a second time and was going to replace Danica Patrick at Andretti.
The story is much the same with Justin Wilson. 2015 was, to this point, a mixed bag. He had left Dale Coyne Racing in the off-season with the hopes of getting a full-time ride with Andretti. Sponsorship fell through, and in the early season only an appearance at the Brickyard was guaranteed. But as the year went on, Andretti committed to Wilson for the final run of races, and after a fantastic 2nd place at Mid-Ohio, it was looking like he would finally get the full season in a truly competitive car that he so deserved.
If you ever interacted with Wilson, or even saw someone else interacting with him, you might wonder where the nickname "Badass" came from. Few in the paddock had such a consistently big smile, or seemed to be so genuinely happy to be where they are. Fans were no burden - in Pocono on Saturday, I overheard him cheerfully respond to an autograph request with, "Sure! Do you have a pen?" Perhaps, then, it's that he had such a great demeanor despite overcoming so much to get to where he did. His tall, lanky build not only made him stand out among the small statures of other formula racers, it also became an impediment to getting rides, since many cars were either too small for him, or teams felt his higher weight was a performance liability, to the point that IndyCar created a minimum 185 lb. driver weight essentially just for him. He famously sold shares in his future to the British to get an F1 ride, which was then gone after a season when Red Bull wanted Christian Klein in his seat. After building RuSPORT into a title contender, he went to then-powerhouse Newman-Haas...right as ChampCar merged into IndyCar and they had to relearn with new equipment. And, finally, years of struggling with DCR's perennially rear-of-the-grid cars.
Or, it could be that last bit that earned him the nickname. No one in IndyCar did more with less than Wilson. DCR had never won a race in over 15 years of trying until Wilson muscled one of their cars to a win at Watkins Glen. And there was that night in Texas that a man who had previously detested oval racing bested the field in a machine that should never have sniffed the front otherwise. Drivers are judged by the worst cars - it's believed most drivers could take a great car to victory, but only a select few can take the awful cars to a win. Only the most badass drivers. Drivers like Justin Wilson. Badass.
The Andretti ride was the culmination of years of hard work and disappointment for Wilson. His big break, however late in his career, was finally coming. The potential for so many great things...and then, a car spins into the wall in front of him, he goes low to miss it, and suddenly...
Stefan Wilson, Justin's brother, Tweeted this out earlier:
Justin Wilson's future was as bright as it could be, and deservedly so. Now six other human beings have received their own bright future through him. It seems appropriate for a man who took the worst of times and always made the best of them.
What a badass.