Justin Wilson still holds a special place in the heart of the INDYCAR community, nearly two years after the popular British driver’s untimely passing.
The latest example of Wilson’s lasting influence comes in the form of a project that takes on added significance today – race day at the Honda Indy Toronto – because it involves restoration of the car Wilson drove to his first Indy car victory, 12 years ago on the streets of Exhibition Place.
The Lola B05/00 chassis that carried Wilson to the Toronto win on July 10, 2005, as well as a win in the season finale of the Champ Car World Series schedule that year at Mexico City, will do the beloved Brit one last favor. Now restored, the chassis is set to be sold soon with proceeds benefiting the Wilson’s Children Fund.
Wilson died in August 2015 following an incident in the Verizon IndyCar Series race at Pocono Raceway. The fund was created shortly thereafter to ensure long-term financial security for Wilson’s wife, Julia, and daughters Jane and Jessica. The entire Indy car community – the world racing community, at that – rallied to raise significant donations for the fund through memorabilia auctions and more in the months following Wilson’s death.
The Indy car community has stepped up again to bring the Lola back to its 2005 splendor when it competed for RuSPORT in Champ Car. It has been no small task, but for a driver who was neither small in build nor heart, it has been a cathartic endeavor.
After the chassis was retired from competition in 2006, its history nearly became forgotten. Dan Pettit, co-owner of the former PKV Racing team along with Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser, took possession of the Lola when he acquired RuSPORT’s assets in 2007. Pettit and his wife, Kelly, lent the chassis to Vasser, who had it repainted to use as a display car at one of his auto dealerships.
Out of curiosity, Vasser researched the Lola’s background in late 2016. Upon discovering its winning pedigree, he and the Pettits came up with the restoration idea.
“For some unknown reason,” the Pettits said via news release, “we kept one of our old cars from the racing team. When Jimmy Vasser suggested we donate it with the proceeds going to the Wilson Children’s Fund, we thought it was brilliant.”
From there, it was a collaboration of more than a dozen people who brought the winning car from decoration piece back to authentic condition.
The chassis was relocated from Nevada to Indianapolis, where Dreyer & Reinbold Racing – which fielded Wilson for two Verizon IndyCar Series seasons in 2010 and 2011 – graciously opened its doors as a workplace for the restoration. Chris Mower, a veteran team manager for several Indy car organizations, led a group of current and former crew members who stripped and rebuilt the car on their own time.
Mower and Wilson were close friends. Wilson drove for Mower’s F3000 team, winning the 2001 championship. The duo reunited when Wilson joined Conquest in 2004, where Mower was working. Mower is shown at right unloading the Lola from a transporter as it begins the restoration process.
With equipment, parts and paint all donated, the chassis was restored to its identical condition – including the CDW primary sponsorship logo, but without an engine – to what it looked like taking the checkered flag at Toronto in 2005.
It was a quintessential Justin Wilson drive that day, typical of his race craft – contending, lurking and pouncing when opportunity arose. Starting third after missing pole by two-thousandths of a second, Wilson was determined to impress new partner CDW, which had signed to sponsor his car for the three Canadian races of the season.
On top of that, Wilson raced with a heavy heart for his native England, since the Toronto race came three days after suicide bombers in London killed 52 and injured more than 700 during the morning commute.
Starting behind Sebastien Bourdais and Paul Tracy, Wilson ran third much of the early going until Bourdais and Tracy came together exiting pit road on Lap 35. The incident cut Bourdais’ right rear tire and knocked off half of Tracy’s front wing. Remarkably, Tracy remained on track and in the lead for 22 laps but ran out of fuel on Lap 57, handing the lead to Oriol Servia with Wilson close behind.
With the laps winding down and Wilson stalking the Spaniard, RuSPORT team owner Carl Russo was being interviewed on live television when Wilson made a bold, diving pass for the lead going into Turn 3 with 12 laps to go. With a fist pump, Russo turned to the microphone with gusto and exclaimed, “That’s Justin!”
It was the first Indy car win for both Wilson and RuSPORT, a pairing that would go on to win four races together over the next three years. (Wilson is shown at top competing in the 2005 Toronto race.)
When the chassis meets its new owner, it will sport identical parts, colors, graphics and tires as the car ran in Toronto. It also has as the seat belts, molded steering wheel and seat Wilson used that season. The lanky Brit’s race-worn fire suit will also be included in the purchase, which will either come via auction or private acquisition.
“It has been our dream to help Justin’s family in some meaningful way and to say thank you for the joy he brought to us,” the Pettits said. “Thanks to everyone who has donated time and energy into getting the car ready for sale.”
Groups involved in the restoration project include Passport Transport, KV Racing Technology, Can Am Cars, Sherwin-Williams, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Indy Paint Shop, IS-Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing and Firestone, along with other individuals who located graphics, renderings, records and other specifications necessary for completing the project.
The Wilson Children’s Fund remains active. Donations are still being accepted at wilsonchildrensfund.com.