Pocono Raceway is a lot of things to me.
It’s the place I really experienced the magic of Indycar for the first time. It’s the place where last August, I camped with one of my best friends right inside the track, where we watched fireworks and saw shooting stars. It’s the place where I really learned to appreciate oval racing, where I finally met a long-time internet friend of mine, where I first stood in a racing pit lane. It’s the place where I watched, to my amazement, as a pack of race cars went seven wide down the front straight.
And it’s the first place I experienced the dark side of auto racing. My first Indycar race was Justin Wilson’s last.
The road that lead me to attending Pocono last year was a pretty easy one to figure out: Pocono was the closest race to my hometown, Boston. Until this point, my travels for motorsport had been much more exotic than just a jaunt to rural Pennsylvania; I’d done Austin, Montreal, Austria, and Silverstone for F1, as well as Long Beach and London for Formula E. I was incredibly new to Indycar; I’d watched most races of the 2015 season, only skipping the few that happened while I was abroad. It seemed exciting, and my friend Cale, who I’d meet in Pocono and had known online for several years, was doing all he could to sell me on the finer points of the series.
I was still, coming from F1, a bit disdainful of oval racing, and I’d missed watching the Indy 500 because my Aunt had been sick. Pocono was basically an oval. This was going to be an experience. I knew going in that what I ended up feeling about Pocono would really make or break my interest in the series; if I could get on board with ovals, I’d be ok.
The drive from Boston to Long Pond, PA is one I’ve done most of about nine hundred times, since I have family in western Pennsylvania. 90 to 84 though Connecticut and New York, skimming the crest of New Jersey into Pennsylvania, then it’s off 84 at Greentown and 25 miles south on small state routes to Pocono Raceway. We arrived on Friday at midnight, punchy and giddy from being stuck in the car for five hours, hyped for a weekend of motorsport. We had paddock and pit passes, something unimaginable to us, coming from F1; they’d come with our campsite, even. It seemed fake, too good to be true; yet there we were at 8 the following morning, showing our passes and wandering into a slowly-awakening paddock. Having been in a few Indycar paddocks since then, that part of the day has quickly become something I love: that early-morning feeling when the paddock noise rises with the sun, as engineers and mechanics begin to arrive and get to work on their cars.
We watched qualifying and practice on Saturday from the pit lane; we saw Mario Andretti zipping around the paddock on a scooter, we saw Sage Karam walking his dog around, we dodged Penske mechanics and collected hero cards and watched Charlie Kimball go flying into the catch fencing off turn 3 (pretty scary) and met James Hinchcliffe and a few other drivers – in short, we had an absolute blast. We wandered through the paddock one last time as the shadows of the day were lengthening; as we arrived back at our campsite, the two-seater was rumbling around the track, a perfect soundtrack to start the rest of our night.
On Sunday morning, bright and early, I met Justin Wilson.
Indycar autograph sessions are really neat. They’re about 45 minutes long, and at most tracks, you line up in one of two lines, and you get to say hi and get an autograph or a photo or whatever from half the entire field. it’s really generous, and again, craziness compared to F1, where you have to scratch and scrabble for anything. We’d lined up in this particular line to meet Josef Newgarden, and it just so happened Justin Wilson was in our lineup too.
“I’m going to ask him about Formula E,” I decided. He’d done a stint for my favorite team, Andretti, at the Moscow e-Prix, driving from 13th on the grid to a 10th place finish. We’d just been in London for the season finale, and I was curious to see what a guy who usually did Indycar thought of the electric series.
After asking me if I watched ‘football’ (I was wearing an Arsenal shirt, to which I responded “yes of course, we watch all the games at a pub as a group!”), I asked him about Formula E. He was eager to talk about it, and expressed genuine interest in doing another stint in the series. He even gave a short analysis of what he thought of the Moscow circuit compared to street circuits in Indycar. As our short conversation ended, he thanked us for coming out to the race, handed us hero cards, and I distinctly regretted not asking him what his favorite soccer team was.
I walked away from that autograph session with an even fresher sense of appreciation for Indycar; I’d met hockey players and F1 drivers and other athletes before, and the only thing that had ever come close to the genuine, friendly conversation I’d gotten from Justin and several other drivers in that session and Hinchcliffe the day before was when I’d met then-GP2 driver Alexander Rossi in Austria. The willingness to just chat with fans like normal people hammered home the humanity of these drivers; you can’t help but smile after talking to most of them.
The cars lined up, we took our seats; the sun beat brutally down on the track and on the backs of our heads, the green flag waved and the chaos began. There were yellow flags throughout the race, for debris, crashes, and once even for a fox on the track. We cheered and yelled as the lead changed numerous times; again, not to beat a dead horse, but lead changes in F1 are so few and far between – it made the constant pack-shuffling in Indycar seem unreal.
And then, the seven-wide restart. You’ve seen the gif of it. The green flag waved, and suddenly a completely ridiculous number of Indycars were sprinting side by side down the front straight. That, right there, was the moment this sport caught me. Everything from the weekend culminated into that one ridiculous moment. I felt giddy watching it; this race was a spectacle. I remember sitting in my seat during the race, thinking about which tracks I’d want to try to get to the next season.
Suddenly, with not too many laps to go, hometown kid Sage Karam was leading the race. And then more suddenly, with even fewer laps to go, he was in the wall at turn 1. We bemoaned the end of his race; discussed how cool it would have been to see him on the podium, to win a race before he could legally drink champagne; and slowly, news trickled into our awareness that Sage’s crash hadn’t just affected him.
Moments passed. A helicopter arrived to take Justin to the hospital. We all sat, stunned, for the rest of the race.
The drive home was miserable; we skipped the podium and high-tailed it out of there. We arrived back in Boston around 3am. The next day, it was official: Justin Wilson had passed away.
We’re here now, a year later, preparing to leave for the very same race. We’ll walk around in the paddock, watch qualifying from the pit lane again; we’ll probably skip autographs, because my friend Elizabeth and I have been to so many Indycar races this year that I’m pretty sure all the drivers are sick of seeing our faces. We’ve done street courses and ovals, including The Big One in Indy; we’ll finish the season at Watkins Glen, getting a road course in the mix as well. It’s weird for a lot of reasons, preparing to go back to Pocono, and a year passing hasn’t really done much to help sort through all the emotions around it. Pocono was where I fell in love with Indycar, but it’s also where we all saw Justin get fatally wounded. How, exactly, does one reconcile these two very conflicting things?
The answer is: you don’t, I think. I also think that’s part of the deal when you watch this sport. You have to acknowledge the dangers alongside the delights; you have to hope that the series works as hard as it can to improve safety while enjoying the way the series exists in its current iteration. You have to remember the drivers who are no longer with us while celebrating the ones that carry on. We’ll see that in action again this weekend as the Dale Coyne team runs Bryan Clauson’s livery, as the field carries his and Justin’s initials on their cars, their helmets.
I am, at the end of it all, excited to return to Pocono. We’ve made a road trip playlist, we’ve reserved our campsite, and instead of just cheering for a good race, we have actual favorite drivers to cheer for this year and opinions about the field that we’ve developed over the season. We have friends to see and new experiences and memories to create. I’ll walk through the fan village and remember fondly my few minutes of Justin’s time; I’ll always regret not asking him what his favorite Premier League team was. I’ll stand in the paddock and remember his #25 car getting wheeled by me, so close I could practically touch it. And I’ll sit in the stands and remember the moment the sport hooked me, when the cars went seven wide.
Let’s go to Pocono.