By Curt Cavin | Published: May 5, 2021
Stefan Wilson has Google and a curious amateur driver to thank for this opportunity to compete in the 105th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
It was only a couple of months ago that Wilson met businessman Don Cusick at The Thermal Club driving facility in Riverside County, California. Cusick liked Wilson’s fresh face and engaging personality, but he didn’t know much about his background, especially his professional experience. So, he went Internet searching to see if Wilson was somebody.
Within moments, Cusick learned what most fans of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES have long known: Wilson is not only the younger brother of standout driver Justin Wilson, a seven-time INDYCAR race winner who suffered a fatal injury in a racing accident in 2015, he is a person with dogged determination and two “500” starts to his resume.
As Wilson aptly describes, he is a driver who keeps “getting back up after being knocked down.”
“And I keep showing this Yorkshire grit I’ve got,” Wilson said, laughing.
The result of Cusick’s web search led to an in-depth discussion about “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” a bucket-list item for a man who remembers watching closed-circuit broadcasts of the “500” in the 1960s. Wilson offered Cusick a connection to suite tickets for this year’s 105th Running, which led Cusick to invite Wilson to join him. But Wilson, like most drivers, said he would rather not spectate if he couldn’t participate, to which Cusick responded, “Well, then let’s do something about that.”
Cusick connected the sponsorship dots, bringing a company he is invested in – LOHLA SPORT, a premier women’s golf lifestyle brand – to the discussion. Wilson, who was shocked by the speed at which talk transitioned to reality, then got approval from Andretti Autosport to drive the team’s No. 25 Honda in the upcoming “500.” It’s the same ride — and with the same engineer, Doug Zister – that Wilson had in 2018 when he led with on Lap 195 until being forced to pit for fuel. Will Power then assumed the lead and the win.
And that’s how this deal came together.
“That’s how racing is,” Wilson said. “Sometimes you beat your head against the wall, and then sometimes something like this (appears).”
Cusick said Wilson made the decision easy.
“Super-nice guy, super easy to get along with was (my) first impression,” he said. “But as I got to know him a little bit better over the first couple of days we were running cars together, I kind of heard his whole back story, and he was just the kind of guy you feel really good about giving a boost to. Him, his brother, everything they’ve been through (as a family) – just his whole story touched my heart.
“It’s a pretty big investment to make in someone who you only really know for few days, but he’s the kind of guy you immediately get a good feeling about.”
Also involved in this entry is Lisa O’Hurley, founder and CEO of LOHLA SPORT. She is the wife of comedic actor John O’Hurley, best known for his “Seinfeld” character, Mr. J. Peterman. He also hosted “Family Feud.”
Wilson will be on the track when official practice begins Tuesday, May 18, and he will be part of the Indianapolis-based organization that has won the “500” five times with five different drivers, most recently with Takuma Sato in 2017. Two of those Indy winners remain on the team – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014, Alexander Rossi in 2016 – and two other drivers have won an NTT P1 Award at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. James Hinchcliffe won Indy’s pole in 2016, Marco Andretti did last year.
Andretti Autosport also fields Colton Herta and has a technical alliance with Meyer Shank Racing, which is fielding Jack Harvey and three-time “500” winner Helio Castroneves in this race. The collection of experience is vast, with eight drivers collaborating along with retired Hall of Fame driver Michael Andretti, veteran Bryan Herta and their team of proven engineers and mechanics.
“An amazing opportunity,” Wilson said of joining the pack.
Wilson, 31, was due for an easier year preparing for this event. In 2019, his agreement with a primary sponsor fell through in the final hours before the deadline, leaving him without an opportunity to make his third start at IMS. Two years ago, his last-minute effort didn’t materialize, leaving him to wonder if he would ever return to IMS.
“It’s been a bit of a roller coaster in my career,” he said. “The Indy 500 may only be a month, but for drivers like myself that are committed to it, it’s a year-long commitment. It’s something we work at around the clock all year to try to make it back and to make this race.
“It’s mentally challenging.”
Wilson has kept financially afloat by coaching other drivers, many of whom compete in the Ferrari Challenge sports car series. That gig allows him to pursue INDYCAR opportunities when they arise.
Wilson knew he had a golden opportunity with Andretti Autosport in 2018, and he nearly made the most of it by taking the lead with eight laps remaining. He finished 15th but impressed team officials with his steadiness and hunger while protecting the equipment.
This year, Wilson plans to improve on the only part of his driving he believes has held him back. He wants to be more aggressive on restarts, and he has learned a lot by watching Rossi’s approach.
“In 2018, I was still sort of a rookie (at IMS) and my goal was to run every mile I could and finish the 500 miles,” he said, noting that an electrical issue on Lap 120 had taken him out of the 2016 race. “(Being inexperienced) didn’t afford me the opportunity to take many risks – I didn’t have the opportunity to say, ‘I’m going to risk it all and try to pass four cars around the outside on this restart,’ because if I wrecked in that situation, it would have hurt my ability to potentially come back.
“It would have put my reputation as a crazy guy that shouldn’t be in the Indy 500, so I had to be a little more reserved.”
Given how the past few years have gone, Wilson figures to be noticed more this month. And he feels as if he belongs.
“This year I want to stand my ground a little bit more on the restarts and get more racy,” he said. “But the similar goal is to run every lap, learn as much as possible and utilize the month to create a foundation potentially keep the momentum to keep coming back here.”
The Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge airs live on NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network at 11 a.m. (ET) Sunday, May 30.