Justin Wilson – A gentle giant. 1978-2015

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IndyCar driver Justin Wilson has succumbed to injuries sustained when he was struck in the head by debris from Sage Karam’s car during Sunday’s race at Pocono. Wilson, a husband and father of two, was 37.

Justin Wilson began his career in Europe, moving up the ladder until securing a spot with the Jaguar F1 team. It was a short-lived F1 career, and the tall Yorkshireman soon found himself driving in Champ Car and later, in the merged IndyCar Series. He won seven races and had more potential, but his trajectory was vexed by a lack of funding that kept him from a top ride in the series. He raced part-time for Andretti Autosport this year, his first opportunity with a top-tier team.

I interviewed Justin every year during the IndyCar races at Sonoma. He was not a close friend, but he was an acquaintance, a friendly face, an easy quote. A gentle giant who stood at 6’4″ but spoke softly. There are a lot of egotistical and self-centered racing car drivers; Justin was not one of them. He was a man above the trappings of sport and fame, while seemingly remaining one of us.

The grief at his death is unspeakable. He will be missed by anyone who knew him.  To the end, he was a great man: Justin’s organs were donated and six people have a new lease on life thanks to his generosity. My condolences to his family and friends.

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IndyCar in the rear view mirror

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The IndyCar season closed last Saturday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. Although Tony Kanaan won the race, Will Power won his first IndyCar championship and proved his doubters wrong.  Penske teammates Power and Helio Castroneves (below) were a two-horse race for the title, with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver Simon Pagenaud a distant third.

Power had an up and down season, winning regularly but angering fans and fellow drivers with occasionally questionable driving tactics.  Penske is a five-star operation, giving each of its drivers an opportunity win the title.  For the second year in a row, Castroneves was unable to seal the deal. Juan Pablo Montoya returned to open wheel racing from NASCAR, and, while he didn’t contend for the championship, his speed was undiminished.

Target Chip Ganassi Racing had a slow start, something Scott Dixon acknowledged after he won at Sonoma.  Dixon targeted Ganassi’s sports car projects as drawing focus away from IndyCar at the beginning of the season. One can only guess what the team might have achieved with more focus.

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Power (below) was the focus of attention all weekend at Sonoma and again at Fontana. Power qualified on pole at Sonoma but spun during the race and finished 10th. Power has never been a strong oval driver, but this year, he put together a consistent string of finishes to claim an IndyCar title.

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Much was expected of Juan Pablo Montoya (below, with wife Connie, on the grid at Sonoma). For the most part, the Colombian delivered on his promise, showing no loss of speed or intensity after time spent in F1 and NASCAR.

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Pit stop action from Sebastian Saavedra.  Along with Montoya, Saavedra and Carlos Huertas formed an IndyCar Colombian Crew.

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Paoli wheel gun, used for IndyCar only (costs about $4,500).

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Carlos Munoz was an impressive rookie of the year.  Behind Munoz, Mikhail Aleshin and Jack Hawksworth all showed promise,  but Munoz managed to finish fourth in his rookie Indy 500.

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For most of the year, Ryan Briscoe was outshone by teammates Kanaan and Dixon (and Charlie Kimball).

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Ed Carpenter stepped down from his driving duties on road courses, allowing Mike Conway to take over. At Sonoma, Conway lead almost 40 laps late in the race, thanks to a savvy fuel strategy and good luck.  Conway lost the lead on lap 83 and coasted to a halt just past the start/finish line. I spent those laps in Ed Carpenter’s pit, watching as the team bit its nails under pressure.

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Dixon won at Sonoma, but couldn’t repeat as series champion.

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IndyCar at Sonoma: Lessons in commitment

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A wise college coach football coach once said to me: “In a ham and egg breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.”

I thought a lot about commitment as I stood on the exit of Sonoma’s turn 3-3a complex for Sunday’s morning warm up.  As the cool of the morning began to ebb, and the shrill howl of twin turbos sliced through the air, I watched 22 drivers approach the same corner, looking for truth in tenths of seconds.

What I saw proved the old coach’s point. Turn 3-3a is a devilish left-right flick: entered from a downhill slope out of Turn 2, the turn dives left, then climbs up and slightly to the right on exit. On the other side is a long downhill straight, putting a premium on exit speed out of 3a. Imagine the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca, taken in reverse. The entry is fast, the car leaning left as the driver muscles it to the right, all while standing on the throttle. It’s a lesson in commitment and which drivers have, as they say, “rather large attachments”.

Team Penske’s Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya come through early, Montoya carrying tremendous exit speed and the raw aggression that has won him races at Monaco, Indianapolis, and Daytona. Power shows more nuance but no less speed through the same complex.  Castroneves isn’t far off from his stablemates.  Then the Ganassi cars appear, Dixon and Kanaan just a blur in their red and white Target cars, fully dialed in.  Although Power is the polesitter, Dixon and Kanaan look quick in morning warm up.

Later, much later, as Dixon stalked Mike Conway for the lead in the waning laps of the race, a Chevrolet engineer attached to Conway’s team explained Dixon’s pace: “Dixon rolls the car through the corner like nobody else. Carries more speed into, and out of, the corners.” It also helps conserve fuel, which ended up costing Kanaan a shot at winning the race.

Then it’s time for the Andretti drivers to take on 3-3a.  Hinchcliffe is slow getting out of the garage, but Ryan Hunter-Reay is in full attack mode.  The engine coughs, sputters and blurps as Hunter-Reay bumps against the rev limiter, pushed beyond its limits by the aero load and the demands of the driver’s right foot.  Gravity wants to send the car into the sky; locked in an eternal struggle with its opposite number, downforce, which wants to plant the car and compress the driver into his seat. The Firestone tires scream in anger, testing the limits of adhesion.

And that’s how you know who is committed. Guys on the rev limiter are pushing hard, making the corner work for them, using all of their skills and relying on bravery for the rest. A group of cars come through that are off the rev limiter, who are fighting the car and the corner, whose revs drop as they struggle with the sudden change of direction. The newer drivers struggle the most, Munoz, Huertas and Saavedra look lost at sea. They choose a different apex than Power and Dixon, setting up more for the entry than the exit, where speed matters more.

There are critical tenths to be picked up at corners like this; tenths that mean the difference between P1 and P20. Never leave something on the table. Wily veterans know this. Young drivers have to learn.

A group of drivers who occassionally get 3-3a right come through. Graham Rahal and Sebastien Bourdais are quick on occasion, like Sato and Conway, but none can pull of the kind of metronomic consistency that guys like Power and Dixon display lap after lap.

And in that sense, Turn 3-3a presents a microcosm of the IndyCar pecking order, a hierarchy revealed in a single turn. The quick and the ballsy tend to be with the elite teams; the rest struggle for consistency from week to week. You can see why Power does so well at Sonoma: he’s quick, but he’s off the rev limiter, which means he knows the precise mixture of steering input and throttle for quick in-quick out. It’s the smoothness that won him pole, a course record, three wins and a second at this circuit. Dixon used the same skills to pull out a win after Power faltered in the race.

It’s all a matter of commitment.


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Illustration: Ryan Briscoe approaching Turn 2 at Sonoma, with the Turn 3 just beyond. Below, Hunter-Reay exits 3a.

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Look at Kanaan’s head in the photos above and below to get a sense of the lateral forces opposing him as he exits the corner.

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The turn exits to a downhill straight. Exit speed is key.

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IndyCar at Sonoma: Movers and shakers

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The night before Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix at Sonoma, a 6.0 earthquake hit nearby Napa, sending shock waves throughout the area.

Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon slept through the temblor, but Team Penske and its polesitting driver, Will Power, were awakened in the middle of the night and briefly forced out of their hotel rooms.

That was the first quake. The second came about 12 hours later, when Dixon won the race and Power finished 10th. Power retained his commanding lead in the championship standings, which is now a three-way battle with Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay finished second at a circuit where his team historically has struggled to find performance. After failing to make the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying, Hunter-Reay was one of several who benefited from a first corner incident involving James Hinchcliffe, Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe and Sebastien Bourdais.  All would continue, but Castroneves’ title hopes were dealt a setback. Simon Pagenaud finished third for Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports, an impressive result after a difficult weekend.

Power, who entered Sonoma leading the championship, took off to an early lead along with Newgarden and Dixon. Ahead by a comfortable margin, Power inexplicably spun at turn 7 on lap 36, shuffling him down the order.  “It took me by surprise when I spun. Thankfully I kept if off the clutch when it happened. That’s just racing.”

Dixon had to pedal for the win, but a succession of fuel-starved Dallaras fell by the wayside and lightened his task.  Ed Carpenter Racing’s Mike Conway took the lead on lap 40, thanks to an alternate fuel strategy after a mediocre qualifying (P17). The gamble was paying off until Graham Rahal passed Conway, who was trying to save fuel but also knew that Rahal had to stop before the finish.

At that point, one of Conway’s pit crew members pointed at the name below Conway’s on the timing sheet: Scott Dixon.  Dixon was gaining, taking advantage of fresh rubber against the scuffed Firestone reds Conway took on his final stop.  Conway – conserving every precious drop of Sunoco fuel – was passed by Dixon on lap 83. “I was doing all I could to keep those boys behind,” the Englishman said, spent after another shrewd charge to the front.

Conway’s car ran out of fuel on the final lap, and he coasted across the finish line before stepping out for the long walk back to his pit.  Dixon had enough for the finish, and the win.  “I think the team did a fantastic job with the strategies,” he said.  By winning, Dixon reached fifth on the career win list, joining Bobby Unser.

Although Dixon remains a mathematical possibility for series champion, Power retained a 51-point lead ahead of the season finale at Fontana. Pagenaud and Hunter-Reay were both eager to see the updated points tally after the post-race press conference, but only Pagenaud has a legitimate shot, should both frontrunners falter.

While Hunter-Reay and Pagenaud were startled to find the earth moving at 3:20 am, Dixon remained blissfully unaware. Maybe it’s the relaxed Kiwi nature, but Dixon was no worse for wear from his Sonoma shaker.

You can’t say the same about the rest of his championship rivals.

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IndyCar at Sonoma: The song remains the same

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The cream always rises to the top.  Unless it’s already there.

With three wins and a second at Sonoma in the last four years, Will Power has long been the class of the IndyCar field when it comes to the twisty, wine country road course. As Penske teammate Juan Pablo Montoya noted at a press lunch on Wednesday, “We’re all chasing Will” at Sonoma.

And chase they did.  With sublime car control that allows him to be on the throttle before most other drivers at Sonoma, Power took the Verizon pole award for Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix with a blistering 1:17.41, just shy of his own record pole at Sonoma.  On Saturday, Power advanced to a Firestone Fast Six that included championship rival and teammate Helio Castroneves, who fell prey to a foot fault along turn 9 that left him P6. IndyCar race control had also warned drivers about using too much of the pit entrance lane to set up for entry into the hairpin at turn 11.

Josef Newgarden and James Hinchliffe rounded out the fastest four, the Canadian seeming almost surprised to have made it this far after a tumultuous day that included multiple spins. Earlier in the week, Hinchcliffe had expected better things from his Andretti Autosport teammate, Ryan Hunter-Reay, who had tested at Sonoma. Hunter-Reay failed to advance to the Firestone Fast Six, and Hinchcliffe looked like he had wandered into the wrong press conference.

For Newgarden, from minnow Sara Fisher Hartman Racing, prior tests at Sonoma paid off with a spot on the front row next to Power. Heady company indeed for a man who’s future plans remain uncertain.  If this was the time to impress, Newgarden hit all of his marks. “We’ve been here a couple of times this year (for tests) and I’m figuring it out.”

Earlier in the week, Montoya had tried to explain what gave Power such car command at Sonoma.  “We share data at Penske, ok? And so we ask Will, ‘What are your brake reference points for this turn or that?'”, the Colombian said.  “And Power, he looks at a little patch of dirt near the corner and says ‘There.’  And you are thinking, ‘What is he talking about?'”.

Indeed, Montoya is still wondering, as he never made it past the first round of qualifying.  That was deflating, given his confidence following a series of Penske tests at Sonoma. Power was immediately on the pace, as was Castroneves, who needs Power to falter in order to claim that elusive IndyCar title. In practice, Power broke his own lap record with a 1:17.239.

Power doesn’t have a simple explanation for his success. He felt relaxed in each session, against his better instincts from a track universally described as “technical”.  “This track makes you overdrive it,” Power said. “It’s easy to make mistakes.”

One can only wonder what Newgarden is expecting when he and Power reach the top of the hill tomorrow afternoon at Sonoma’s tight Turn 2.  The race is on NBC Sports Network at 1:40 PDT.

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IndyCar at Sonoma: Where the only constant is change

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IndyCar driver James Hinchliffe describes Sonoma’s occasionally slick track surface as “polished”. Fellow driver Juan Pablo Montoya says one or two turns are “blind and scary”. But that’s also part of Sonoma’s allure, the kind of character that leads drivers from multiple disciplines to describe the circuit as “a driver’s track.”

At a media lunch ahead of Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix, Montoya and Hinchliffe reflected on what drivers like about the 12-turn, 2.38 mile course situated in Northern California’s wine country.  For Montoya, who has previously raced the circuit in stock cars, the change to an open-wheeler was eye opening.  “It’s fun to be on the gas,” Montoya said. “It’s incredible how slow (the Cup) cars used to go here. It takes half a straight to get wide open (in a stock car)”.

Montoya marked turns 3-3a as especially difficult (“Really really hard.  Turn 3 is where I lose everything.”), in addition to Turns 6 and 7 (“blind and scary”). The speed impressed Montoya upon his return to IndyCar.  “We use a shorter course in NASCAR and we still do the same lap time (in an IndyCar).”

Hinchliffe conceded that Andretti Autosport has not experienced much success at Sonoma, although Ryan Hunter-Reay has tested here, and the team hopes to change its fortunes.  “If we have a bad weekend, I’m blaming Ryan”, Hinchliffe joked. Hinchliffe was kidding, but he was visibly disappointed by the lack of testing compared with Montoya and Team Penske, who have visited the circuit several times this season. It’s especially difficult because there is no Friday practice for the IndyCar Series this week.

It’s the unpredictable nature of the circuit that both drivers agreed makes it a challenge.  Hinchliffe said that some drivers would prefer to skip the morning practice because the data, taken in the early morning cold, does not correlate to conditions at race time. Sonoma experiences wild swings from cool, gray mornings to blazing hot afternoons, followed by stiff sea breezes in the afternoon. Qualifying this year will take place in late afternoon. Hinchcliffe even cautioned against gleaning much from the data, lest the team change an otherwise optimal setup based on the wrong weather conditions.

Inevitably, both drivers’ thoughts turned to the championship leader, Montoya’s Penske teammate, Will Power.  “We’re all chasing Will”, Montoya said.  The Australian has a comfortable lead as the series heads into the next-to-last round, and Power already has three wins and a second place at Sonoma. Getting Power out of his groove won’t be easy, although Montoya is never short of confidence.

In most years, winning at Sonoma requires equal parts aggression and tire management, knowing when to push and when to let the race come your way. Cautions are a fact of life, ruining strategies and mixing up the field. Hinchliffe expects a few of the mid-grid qualifiers to start on Firestone’s black tires, trying to make something happen at a circuit where it’s difficult to find passing room.

And that’s part of what makes road racing at Sonoma special. When Montoya described some of the more challenging turns, he had a big grin on his face. Like he was having fun…the way it should be.

**Qualifying for the GoPro Grand Prix is live on NBC Sports Network and @LiveExtra at 7:30 pm et on Saturday.

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