DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Justin Wilson’s wife had quite enough of the driver being home all the time during the six months he was sidelined with a broken bone in his back.
As Wilson readied for his return to the race car this week at Daytona International Speedway, wife Julia couldn’t get him back to the track fast enough.
“She said two days ago, ‘I can’t wait for you to go away again,’ ” Wilson said. “She wanted me out of the house. I think the off-season has been as tough on her as it has on me.”
Wilson suffered a compression fracture of the fifth vertebra in an August accident during the IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio. He was forced to wear a back brace — fellow IndyCar driver Dario Franchitti jokingly referred to the brace as a “turtle shell” — for more than two months and was restricted from any physical activity.
He’s back in a car this weekend for the Rolex 24 at Daytona, driving for Michael Shank Racing with NASCAR driver AJ Allmendinger and Grand-Am regulars Ozz Negri and John Pew in the twice-round-the-clock race that begins Saturday. The open test earlier this month gave him his first laps since his injury.
“The first lap felt strange, which I don’t really get,” Wilson said, “but the first lap driving again and feeling the G-forces and your body moving — it just took a little, like, two laps to get used to it and then after that it all felt normal.”
The Englishman’s official return to racing falls the same week he announced a new deal to drive for Dale Coyne Racing in the upcoming IndyCar season. He drove the past two years for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, but missed the final six races of the season.
That included the season finale at Las Vegas, where countryman Dan Wheldon was killed in an early 15-car accident.
Wilson had raced with Wheldon since he was 8 years old, and a conversation he had with Wheldon the night before the Oct. 16 race haunts him. Wilson was in Las Vegas as a spectator, and ran into Wheldon at their hotel.
Wheldon, Wilson said, told him he was “lucky” to not be racing the next day in what Wheldon predicted would be a wild event.
“I remember that conversation very well. Still,” he said.
But Wilson came to terms long ago with the harsh realities of racing. He broke his ankle, wrist and cut his leg open in a wreck in England when he was 16.
“At 16, you are in the hospital that first night thinking ‘Why does anyone drive race cars? This is stupid,'” he said. “And then the next morning, you think, ‘OK, maybe I’ll do it again.’ The day after that it’s ‘When can I get out of here? I need to get back out there.’ Going through that process and understanding that you can get hurt doing this, at 16, was, I think, part of who I am.
“I respect the sport. And it’s going to bite and it could be really bad. As we all know.”
Wilson has been an active participant in meetings with IndyCar officials to discuss safety issues with both the car and tracks. His own injury and Wheldon’s death have done nothing to change his perspective or make him question his career choice.
“I’ve had the conversation with Julia — this is what we do, and you try to make the best plans if that ever happens,” he said. “You’ve got to know the risks and work out if those risks are acceptable. To me, it’s acceptable. But I’m not going to stop trying to improve it.
“All the drivers, this IndyCar, we’re always trying to make it safer, but at the end of the day, it’s a race car. We’re racing hard, we’re racing IndyCars and it’s fast. When it goes wrong, it can get messy.”
But Wilson is a staunch believer in living his life with no regrets, and he’s eager to continue his IndyCar career. He’ll test for the first time the new Dallara DW12 at Sebring with his new team.
Wilson actually drove for Coyne in 2009, and gave the team its first IndyCar victory that season at Watkins Glen. He’ll be paired again with Bill Pappas, the engineer he worked with during his first stint with Coyne.
The team has also signed with Honda for its engines, which was the main selling point for Wilson when he decided to leave Dreyer & Reinbold. His old team signed Oriol Servia this month to replace Wilson, and has an engine deal with Lotus.
“I’m not saying (Honda) is going to be better than the Lotus, but right now it’s the safer bet,” Wilson said. “I felt that that’s what I needed, the safer bet. Maybe in 12 months time, it will look like I made the wrong call. But I live and try to do my career and my life with no regrets. If I go this way, and the Lotus is better, then oh well.
“But if I go the either way, then I could regret not taking that opportunity and having a chance to win races with a Honda. That’s just how I look at it, and how I justify which path to take.”