Coming to America: The Stefan Wilson Story.
Stefan Wilson made his move across the pond in 2009 after finishing fourth in British Formula 3. He had his sights set on doing a partial season of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires with Walker Racing. Unable to afford the growing budgets of the feeder series to Formula One, Indy Lights provided an avenue of racing both affordable and with a straight shot to a top-level professional series.
The Indy Lights series is part of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder system. It is considered the final step of the Mazda Road to Indy before the Verizon IndyCar Series, where his older brother, Justin Wilson, was competing.
“There wasn’t anywhere to go in the UK,” Wilson said. “There was not a lot of opportunity in the UK, and it seemed like there was more in the U.S. I liked the style of racing here, and Justin was racing in the IndyCar Series.
“Ideally I could have stayed in British F3, but the budgets were crazy and it was right at the beginning of the credit crunch in the UK. Development-wise, that would have been best. By the end of the previous year, we had made a lot of improvements, and I was getting used to racing that type of car.
“However, that wasn’t possible, and I saw the opportunities drivers were getting in the States. The Road to Indy was a lot less cluttered than the European series. Racing alongside Justin on the weekends was nice. I was able to work with him and learn. I was intrigued by ovals, as well; I had never done them before.”
Wilson and Derrick Walker, now president of operations and competition for INDYCAR, had very little time to get their five-race effort together. Through highs and lows over a short period of time, Wilson learned how to handle his Indy Lights car.
“Derrick Walker was a really great team owner to drive for, and I enjoyed working with him,” Wilson said. “We were only able to do five out of 14 events and very little testing. We had a much smaller budget than other teams, a lot less resources.
“We did a half day of testing at Sebring before St. Pete. It was a crazy situation. We all came together very late. It was a Monday or Tuesday before St. Pete, and the car was a lot more powerful, bigger and heavier than any car I had driven before. At St. Pete, we finished practice in the top three in the rain. There were 27 cars on grid. The pace was there, but after the race, the result was not.”
Wilson proved he had pace, time and time again. It followed suit at Long Beach, where he ran in the top five most of the weekend.
“Qualifying sessions were split into two because it was such a large field,” Wilson said. “In qualifying, we ended up second in our group, third overall. It was definitely encouraging having a quick pace so early on.
“In the race, we were running fourth two laps from the end of the race when the gearbox broke. It was absolutely heartbreaking. It was the longest race I had ever done, at an hour. It was just gutting to get so close to the finish line and have the box break. Heartbreaking.”
Wilson traveled coast to coast in his five races. Other memorable tracks included New York’s Watkins Glen International and the street course gem north of the border, Toronto.
“We did some really cool races,” Wilson said. “We did Watkins Glen, Toronto and Mid-Ohio. In Toronto, we were quick all weekend again. We were fifth in qualifying, a good position to start. It rained at the start of the race, and the track dried halfway through. It was one of my first pit stops. We put on slicks and went back out. Pit stops weren’t intense but knowing when to make that call was. We finished fourth, a good result for the team and myself, as well.”
This was also the year that Wilson attended his first Indianapolis 500. He went to support his brother, Justin , who competed as part of the Dale Coyne Racing lineup.
“After the first Indy Lights race and then attending the Indy 500 for the first time, I knew I wanted to base my career here,” Wilson said. “There were no second thoughts after that. I spent all offseason trying to figure out how to come back.”