Open Wheelin’: Lessons Learned the Hard Way; A Love/Hate Relationship With Racing and Life

Joel Sebastianelli Featured, Joel Sebastianelli Blog, Midwest, Sprints & Midgets, Staff Columns, Verizon IndyCar Series 0 Comments

INDIANAPOLIS — Column by Race Chaser Online Open Wheel Correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images North America photo —

I didn’t cry when I heard Justin Wilson died.

Maybe it was the separation — I wasn’t at Pocono, nor was I at IMS when the announcement was made.

Maybe it’s because I expected the worst from the moment his car appeared on camera.

Or perhaps it’s because race fans are all too familiar with this. My lack of outward emotion was probably a combination of all these things, blunted furthermore by whiskey I drank all night, alone.

Untimely death is how the universe sucker punches us below the belt. Sometimes the impact takes a moment to fully register, but when it does, it’s crippling.

It wasn’t until later this week when I cried, thinking about Justin’s seven and five year old daughters.

I can’t begin to imagine how the drivers feel. My only interaction with Justin was in passing, so others are better suited to reflect on his life and the impact he had on the lives of others.

But losing a parent? I know this. I wish I didn’t, but I’m quite familiar with the feeling of indescribable heartache his daughters will be subjected to — even though I don’t know them personally myself.

I was eight years old when my mother died. I was there. Some nightmares you can’t forget, no matter how hard you lie awake for years trying to.

Even if it’s true that time heals all wounds, the process isn’t quick and people inadvertently slow it down.

No matter how old you are, I don’t think you ever learn the “right way” to handle grief because there is no right way. If you lose a parent at a young age, nobody knows what to say or do.

They treat you differently. When all I wanted was to return to normalcy, my friends at school would get quiet when I was around, not realizing that any noise they could make with their mouths would be less awkward than deafening silence.

Kids asked me more than once, “Are you sad your mom died?” A little inappropriate, but it was a heartfelt question because those who asked honestly couldn’t comprehend what it must feel like even though they put in the effort to try on their own.

Years later, adults continued to express sympathy when all I wanted was to talk about literally anything else. Some of them would buy me things, meaning well but unintentionally sending the message that expensive toys could equal the value of my mother and make me feel OK again.

Many suggested I pray with them to ask God to grant my mother access to heaven, when the only question I wanted answered was: “If there really is a God, why the hell is He so mean to me?”

I don’t know Justin’s family, but I do know that those of us who have lost a parent at a young age share very similar experiences.

I want to stress that this is absolutely not an attempt to make this tragedy about myself. But whether it’s a Facebook status, a tweet, a journal entry or a published article — writing is cathartic and I think we’ve all needed that over the past eight days.

In racing, there’s always at least one lesson learned from a lost life. Away from the track, I believe it’s important to learn something every day too. I can’t speak on behalf of Justin, so I’ll stick to what I’m most comfortable with — my own experience.

I have a ton left to figure out, but we all weather this chaotic storm called life together. The way the racing community unites as one big family in times like this is amazing. We can make it through with each other’s help.

Here’s what little I do know, along with some things I’m still trying to understand just like you.

  • The one positive thing that resonated with me this week was learning that Justin saved six lives by posthumously donating his organs. My mother spent several years on the waiting list for a lung transplant she didn’t live long enough to receive. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 79 people benefit from organ transplants each day, while 22 people die because there aren’t enough organs to give. Please consider becoming an organ donor if you haven’t done so already. The most precious gift we have is life. To bestow that upon someone else in need is the most tangible thing every single one of us can do to make an impact on the world around us.
  • Maya Angelou said, “At the end of the day, people won’t remember what you said or did, but they will remember how you made them feel.” I don’t remember the specifics, but I do recall my mother telling me to be the best person I could possibly be and that she loved me. Yeah, all parents say that to their kids, but I know how it makes me feel whenever I think about it as an adult too. My father and I end every phone call by saying “love you” instead of “goodbye.” Never hesitate to tell those you care about how much they mean to you. None of us know how long we’ll be here for, but the way we make people feel will last long after we’re gone.
  • We’re each a product of our own experiences. Sharing eight years with my mother was not enough to actually know her.  Aside from her physical appearance, I’ve learned almost everything by hearing other people talk about her. Although I still don’t know all that much about who she was, a large percentage of the things I do know are traits I’ve been told we share.  I cried thinking about Justin’s daughters, but it makes me smile knowing that, if all the great things I’ve heard about him are true, they’ll each grow up to hear somebody say “you’re just like your father because __________.” That’s how I met my mother. So far, nothing anyone has ever said to me comes remotely close to making me feel as happy as that.
  • I spent several years wallowing in self-pity asking “why me?” Eventually, I began to ask “why not me?” Our human nature has a proclivity towards attempting to assign meaning to everything. Even if there’s some divine explanation we’re not privy to, there’s a cap on what we’re capable of knowing. There’s no point in wondering “what if” because “what if” is not and never will be. Individuals far more thoughtful than I have pondered the meaning of life and other grand philosophical questions for thousands of years. Personally, I think those answers are whatever we want them to be. I find the interpretation that we are not defined by our circumstances but by ourselves to be liberating. It’s incredible how much we can continue to learn from those who are no longer with us — I am who I am because of my mother.

This all may be true for you too. If it isn’t, one of the best things about the human experience is that we each discover our own truths. Even so, one troubling question I haven’t been able to find solace in answering yet pertains to racing.

I’ve never raced at any level of significance, but I love this sport. I learned to read by reading NASCAR Scene every night with my parents in preschool and kindergarten. The 1999 Indianapolis 500 was the most formative sports experience of my childhood. I’ve wanted to work in the media covering races before I even knew what the word “media” meant.

I don’t know why.

When nearly everything in life moves linearly, what’s the point of risking lives to travel in circles? As a fan, why do I encourage others to exert themselves to mortal lengths I don’t have the guts to reach myself?

In reaction to racing fatalities, a response I often see from drivers is that racing is ‘in their DNA.’ Ultimately, that expression only addresses how they feel, not why they feel that way.

We all have something in our DNA, though. As a species, there’s an instinctual desire to exceed our limitations.

Bigger. Better. Faster. Higher. Pushing our minds, our bodies, and even the laws of physics to the very limit, if for no other reason than because it feels…right.

Without the risk of failure, there is no success. There is no such thing as loss if we don’t have something special to cherish in the first place. Absent momentary euphoria, there is nothing worth mourning from deep within our soul.

I suppose that if we don’t have something we love enough to die for, then we haven’t really lived at all.

Justin Wilson died doing what he loved to do — and in a way, he may have shown the rest of us exactly what living is all about.

Rest in peace, Badass.


A fund has been set up to benefit Justin Wilson’s children. T-shirts and decals are available here. Donations can also be mailed to:

Wilson Children’s Fund
c/o Forum Credit Union
PO Box 50738
Indianapolis, IN 46250-0738

The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, Speed77 Radio, the Performance Motorsports Network, their sponsors or other contributors.

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