Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Stefan Wilson Has Earned His Shot

Back in 2011, at Kentucky Speedway, I watched Ed Carpenter pull off one of the closest and most exhilarating wins I’ve seen in recent IndyCar memory. I’m still pretty sure I blacked out for about five minutes after the checkered flag flew, and I have disturbing, fragmented memories of hugging a burly fellow I did not know during that celebration. No alcohol was involved; that’s just the euphoria you get when Sarah Fisher’s team finally wins.

But before any of that, I was witness to another race that weekend, one that started the same way it ended—with Stefan Wilson up front. The Firestone Indy Lights polesitter had a good battle with Josef Newgarden before he took the lead back to win his second Lights race of the year. Wilson finished third in Lights this year, just behind runner-up Esteban Guerrieri. He had shown much improvement on the season, and managed to compete well against the always-powerful Schmidt cars in an Andretti ride. He had three other podiums to go with those two victories, and things looked pretty bright, at least from the outside.

I thought at that point that if Stefan came back to Lights full-time in 2012, he’d have an excellent shot at fighting for the Lights title. But between funding, the new DW12 and seats not exactly being a free commodity, Wilson only ran a single Lights event last year, a P6 at Fontana with Fan Force United. It was a good drive given the circumstances surrounding it, but not what anyone would have hoped would be it for his year in open wheel racing.

When I wrote yesterday morning’s Barber test preview, nothing had been announced on Stefan Wilson signing with Coyne for the 2013 season’s road/street portion of the schedule. (And if you want to be technical, nothing official for the season had yet been released; as encouraging as the news is, it’s still just a test at the moment, with the hopes of something official for the season coming soon). There was, however, the expectation Wilson had some big news, and the rumored possibility it had something to do with Coyne, which I briefly mentioned. Still, this probably was a surprise for many IndyCar fans, especially since Wilson didn’t seem to be one of the big silly season names. As such, there are probably some questions surrounding this announcement. Watching him run alongside big brother Justin Wilson might make for a good story, but what could fans expect from IndyCar’s latest potential rookie?

Wilson tests for Coyne Wednesday.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
As a Mazda Road to Indy aficionado, I’ve watch Stef develop from a rough rookie Lights season in 2009, to an up-and-down 2010, to very, consistent good form in 2011. I believe pretty strongly he’s shown enough to get a chance “in the show”, so to speak. Dale Coyne’s second seat isn’t some high-profile Ganassi or Penske ride, but getting a half-season of IndyCar sure beats the alternative. Wilson was also pretty good at Indy, and to get way, way ahead of things, it’d be great to see him get his shot there, as well. (His pace car rides are also the stuff of legend, as you can ask anyone who has ridden along with him).

“Earned” is a loaded word; just because someone had put in their time does not mean they “deserve” (another loaded word) to be in an IndyCar. But Wilson has paid his dues, he’s worked on his craft, and has shown the type of talent and potential that makes him a fun addition to consider for this year’s field. Speaking with him last year on race weekends, I was struck by his continued determination to work towards a ride, and his honesty in surveying the few opportunities available at the time. There’s no doubt he’s got the right mentality for the work ahead. (He also would give Dale Coyne the tallest driver lineup in the paddock, at least on road and street weekends). It doesn’t hurt that the Wilson brothers can both be counted as two of the nicest, most down-to-earth drivers around IndyCar.

So, if this test does turn into a partial season for Stefan Wilson, I’ll be wishing him all the best, and I think we’ll like what we see. If the Coyne second seat is Wilson’s shot, I hope it affords him the chance to develop further as a driver, and as a springboard for even more opportunities down the road. But first things first: here’s to a good test, and to good news on a contract for Stefan Wilson.

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