IndyCar's Eternal Underdogs Finally Win
This Sunday however at Watkins Glen, two tales of perseverance combined for a well-deserved victory, as Wilson came out with a dominating win. It was his 2nd career IndyCar Series victory, and the first ever for Coyne after 25 years of racing.
Justin Wilson is known for being one of the nicest guys in the paddock, as well as his extreme height for an open wheel race, 6-foot-4. Like most young European drivers, Wilson hoped to make it to Formula One. While his results warranted an F1 ride, his height and a lack of funds made it difficult, the former keeping him from a late season drive in 2002. The next year though, his management came up with the idea of selling shares in Wilson for 500 pounds a share. This raised 1.2 million pounds, enough to get Wilson a ride with Minardi in 2003.
Unfortunately, Minardi did not have nearly enough cash to compete in F1, and as such Wilson’s chances were success were minimal. However, he did enough to get noticed by Jaguar, who signed Wilson to replace a struggling driver for the final five races. With Jaguar, Wilson would get his only World Championship point, an 8th at the US Grand Prix. However, Jaguar needed funds for 2004, which Wilson couldn’t provide, and so out he went.
The F1 door closed, Wilson headed state-side to Champ Car. He acquitted himself well, finishing 11th in the points as a rookie, followed by a 3rd and two 2nds the next three years. In four Champ Car years, Wilson won four times and finished on the podium 15 times. For this success, it looked like Wilson would finally get his big break. Sebastien Bourdais, who had won four straight Champ Car titles, was heading to F1, and his team, Newman/Haas/Lanigan, had hired Wilson to replace him. Thus, Wilson looked like the favorite for the 2008 championship, until fate interfered in the form of unification with the rival IndyCar Series.
Instead of being at the top of the heap, Wilson and N/H/L found themselves having to learn new cars and new tracks on the fly, all while up against long time well-funded IndyCar teams. Wilson in particular had to learn oval racing for the first time. While it was a struggle at first, things started to come together as the season went on, and the effort was rewarded with Wilson’s first career IndyCar Series victory at Detroit. It was the final win for the late Paul Newman.
Wilson finished a respectable 11th in the 2008 IndyCar Series standings, and just four points behind Hideki Mutoh for the Rookie of the Year award. However, money became an issue once again, and N/H/L dropped him. Wilson didn’t sign with Coyne until late in the offseason, and it was an obvious step down the paddock that didn’t appear deserved based on talent and results.
Dale Coyne was a former racer in the 1980s before forming his own team in 1986, which competed in CART, Champ Car’s precursor. Coyne was an owner/driver for a few seasons before retiring from the cockpit to concentrate on ownership. Although his name is pronounced “coin,” the story of the team has been how little of it they have. As a result, the team has rarely been able to get out of even the middle of the pack. However, Coyne also has a reputation of answering the bell every season, with one or two cars, no matter what. The results were never there, but no could deny the passion wasn’t.
So the years went on with no victory, or even podiums. Coyne’s team sometimes gave a promising young driver their start, but a lot of time Coyne fielded anonymous pay drivers who disappeared as quickly as they came. In recent years though, the team was able to land veteran drivers who suddenly couldn’t find rides at the top of the sport, such as Oriol Servia, Cristiano da Matta, and Bruno Junqueira. This helped results improve, culminating in the team’s previous best performances, a second place by Junqueira in 2007.
Like Newman/Haas/Lanigan, Coyne was a former Champ Car team transitioning to IndyCar in 2008. Unlike N/H/L, there really wasn’t any success to speak of. Coyne’s two cars finished 20th and 21st in the standings. Making things worse, 2008 driver Mario Moraes took his funding to a different team. Once again though, Coyne found a way to answer the bell, but cutting to just one car, driven by Wilson.
Right away though, it was obvious Wilson’s talent on road courses was going to take this team places. At the season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Wilson led a significant chunk of the race. However, he was passed on a late restart by Ryan Briscoe and ended up third. Still a great result, but bittersweet after coming so close to the win.
The team predictably struggled through the six race oval stretch. Lack of funds plus an inexperienced driver on ovals is not a good combination. This week though at Watkins Glen, everyone knew Coyne and Wilson would be a factor. They were from the start, as Wilson started second, and within a few laps got by Briscoe for the lead. Unfortunately, a late caution led to the possibility of déjà vu: Wilson in front, with Briscoe right behind ready to inhale him on the restart.
Not this time though. Wilson got a fantastic jump on the restart, and in the closing laps shocked everyone but doing what seemed impossible: pull away from a Penske. Wilson took the checkered flag, and after 25+ years of scraping by, Dale Coyne was a winner. It was a just reward for two men that have been forgotten multiple times over, and easily the best moment of what has been a disappointing and tumultuous IndyCar season.
In the end though, Coyne said it best. When asked how it felt to finally win, he simply said, “It took too long.”
It may have, but nobody can say it wasn't well earned.