As an editor of any publication, fun or otherwise, there are days where you wrestle with what you should publish. The past 24 hours have been hard for the world of motorsport with the loss of British driver Justin Wilson, and in late 2014 one of Badger’s staff writers, Joe Diamond, interviewed his father Keith Wilson for his University dissertation.
Ultimately, the afternoon he spent in Yorkshire didn’t make the cut in his final assignment, for whatever reason, and when Joe brought it to me yesterday I spent far too much time agonising over what people would think if we put it on BadgerGP.com. Ultimately I have, only because it’s as touching a tribute you can get; a father beaming with pride over the success story of his sons at what they love to do. Let it be known that we’re not in the hunt for website hits or attention, just to share the story of a remarkable man. Thank you.
– Craig Norman, Editor, BadgerGP.com
Woodall is a tiny hamlet in South Yorkshire, just short of Sheffield. Little to most people’s knowledge however, it is home to two of the region’s most successful sportsmen. Both Justin and Stefan Wilson have grown into a pair of North America’s most recognised names in motorsport, a story of two sons that Keith Wilson is only too keen to tell.
Keith resides to this day in Woodall with his wife Lynne, in a beautiful house surrounded by farmland. It’s what lies beneath that impresses most however, as Keith, now 67 years old, leads me downstairs to a basement of nostalgia; race suits, visors, helmets, photographs, all sat mirroring the extensive trophy cabinet opposite, a collection of metal greater than the steel Sheffield is famous for. “This is only up until 1999”, Keith grins. “Well, some of it’s from 2000.” Just 14 more years of success to go then.
Justin Wilson, the elder of the two brothers, started racing in 1987 when he was just eight years old, turning heads and lighting up kart tracks immediately. Wilson senior acted as Justin’s chief mechanic, courier and mentor from the word go, dovetailing his day job running a petrol station with the role that would eventually help Justin become a world-beater.
“Right from the start the idea was that we would race at Wombwell in Barnsley every month. The weekend before would be the practice day, and then we’d race on the Sunday the weekend after. I thought, ‘Hey, that’ll keep me busy at the weekends, keep me off the streets at least!’ That was when he was eight years old, and we’ve never really looked back since. I don’t think he’s ever really had a weekend off.”
By this point Keith brings to the coffee table a published book of memoirs built around Justin’s career to date. Its existence is that of a ‘thank you’ gift to the various investors that have supported the brothers through the years, but in this instance it acts as a reflection of Keith’s eyes, as both he and the book relive Justin’s rise up the motorsport ladder.
One page, or surname rather, suddenly stands out – Fullerton. Terry Fullerton is widely regarded as the king of karts, a man earmarked by a certain Ayrton Senna as the only one who could hold a candle to him on the racetrack. In 1993 Keith met Terry, by this point an established guru and mentor for kart racers, for the first time.
“We’d done a few years in karting, and at this point we were struggling with Justin’s weight. He’s was tall, and in karting any extra weight makes a huge difference. I rang Terry up and asked him to have a look at my son. We were racing at Fulbeck in Worksop, when one of Terry’s men came over and tapped me on the shoulder; ‘Terry would like to meet you at the services after the race.’ It was all very secretive. We met up, and he told us to give up there and then, because we had ‘no chance’ with Justin’s weight in the kart we were using.
“Terry took Justin on the season after in Formula A karting, the highest class of karting, at the age of 15, and he finished fifth, against 20 and 30-year-olds who were established names at the time. Terry was the guy that knew 20% more than anyone else in the sport. It was the best year we ever had in racing.”
We flip the page to the next chapter, not metaphorically, but in the book laid out in front of us, as it gives up a collage of images documenting Justin’s rise to Formula One through the junior ranks, alongside the likes of Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button. Justin’s big break came in 2003 with Minardi, on the back of a number of F1 tests and world championships in lower formulas. Indeed, Minardi were so impressed with Justin, they built a car tailor made for all 6 foot 4 inches of Sheffield’s fastest, who in turn, failed to disappoint.
“The car at times was three seconds off the pace, especially at the start of the season, but we managed to get into some really good positions as the season went on. At the end of the day though it came down to money. Justin left Minardi to join Jaguar further up the grid for the final five races alongside Mark Webber, but for 2004 the team went for Christian Klien, who sadly for us, had money from Red Bull to back him up.”
Since then, Justin and latterly younger brother Stefan have moved stateside, with the duo making the Wilson name something of a coined term when it comes to open-wheel-racing in North America. However, as their father points out, that’s where the similarities stop.
“I suppose so, I’ve never thought about that really. I think for Lynne it’s a mixed blessing not seeing them racing all that often, but they’ve both grown up and flown the nest, that’s what happens. Justin’s 36 now and Stefan’s 25, they’re grown up and making names for themselves in their own rights.”
Despite the book only having 132 pages, we agree that we could talk about the last 14 years of motorsport for hours on end. Before I leave to get lost on the country roads that engulf Woodall, Keith offers me the book in question as a gift – one that perfectly encapsulates the story of how two country boys from humble beginnings reached, and scaled, the heights of international motorsport on the other side of the pond.
RIP Justin Wilson.