Sturbin: Coyne-Wilson Victory Is Feel-Good Story Of Summer

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, July 7 2009
Justin Wilson and Dale Coyne celebrate a victory that was a long time coming. (IRL photo by Ron McQueeney)

Justin Wilson and Dale Coyne celebrate a victory that was a long time coming. (IRL photo by Ron McQueeney)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Historic Watkins Glen International proved the perfect backdrop Sunday for the belated breakthrough IndyCar Series victory of team-owner Dale Coyne, a farm boy with a passion for racing.

Coyne, whose involvement as a major-league open-wheel driver/owner dates to 1984, saw a 25-year/558-race winless streak snapped with Justin Wilson’s victory in the Camping World Grand Prix at The Glen.

“That didn’t take long, did it?” Coyne joked as he celebrated with Wilson, who scored his second series victory at the expense of runner-up Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske and third-place Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

As story lines go, Coyne and Wilson scored one for the sport’s little guys. Dale Coyne Racing’s inaugural victory was the first by an IndyCar organization other than Roger Penske’s or Chip Ganassi’s since Wilson won at Belle Isle near Detroit for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing on Aug. 31, 2008. That was a streak of 10 points races and one non-points event. 

“It’s funny,” said Coyne, who started his racing career in 1975 in Showroom Stock before progressing through the open-wheel Formula Atlantic and Super Vee ranks to Champ Car. “You think back at the things you do. I remember being here in ’78, and in the Super Vee and in the trailer helping Geoff Brabham. He was changing gears on his Super Vee. I had a Super Vee, I think. Bob (Lazier) was there…Father Bob was there. He won the race that weekend, and that was a long time ago. 

“It’s all the things you do, you know? You have a passion for this, and you love it, and you keep fighting and going forward. When we have lean years or bad years and don’t have a sponsor, it just makes you try harder, and I think that’s paid off.” 

Wilson, whose only previous top-10 this season was third in the opener at St. Petersburg, Fla., started on the outside of the front row and led a race-high 49 of 60 laps. It was the most laps led by a winner in the five-year history of this event; the previous record was 25 by Dixon in 2005. 

Facing a restart on Lap 54, Wilson used the Firestone alternate tires on his No. 18 Z-Line Designs Dallara/Honda to outdistance pole-sitter Briscoe by a comfortable 4.9906 seconds. Dixon, meanwhile, took over the championship points lead by finishing third. Dixon leads TCGR teammate Dario Franchitti and Briscoe by 19 points (313-294) after nine of 17 races. 

Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves advanced nine positions to finish fourth. Marco Andretti of Andretti Green Racing placed fifth, overcoming contact with E.J. Viso’s car on Lap 5 that put him a lap down long before Wilson’s heroics. 

“It’s fantastic to get Dale’s first win, and also (Dale’s wife) Gail’s,” said Wilson, a 30-year-old native of Sheffield, England. “The two of them put a lot into this, and their heart and soul. We all do. So it’s fantastic to get the first win. It means a lot to me. I think this is my most important victory of my career. I’m looking forward to enjoying it.” 

Watkins Glen, located in the heart of New York State’s rolling Finger Lakes Region, prides itself as the “Birthplace of American Road-Racing.” Innes Ireland, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt are among the international open-wheel heroes who have won on the 3.4-mile, 11-turn, long-course layout. 

More recently, after winning the inaugural IndyCar race at The Glen in 2005, Dixon donated his laurel wreath from Victory Lane to the Seneca Lodge on the edge of downtown – a tradition that dates to the first Formula One Watkins Glen U.S. Grand Prix in 1961. To the applause of patrons, Dale and Gail Coyne added their wreath to the collection before leaving town. 

“I got here early, so we’re down in Watkins Glen walking around, and you see all those names on the pavement down there,” Wilson said. “The guys that have won here, and that’s pretty cool. You’re walking around, reading off the names. It’s fantastic to get your name on the board of winning at Watkins Glen up there with some of the best.” 

Wilson inherited the lead on Lap 45 when Andretti made his final stop for fuel and tires on the No. 26 Team Venom Energy Dallara/Honda. Briscoe closed to 0.4743-seconds with 10 laps left before a full-course caution on Lap 52 prompted by Hideki Mutoh’s contact with the barrier in Turn 7. Briscoe, running regular Firestone compound tires on his No. 6 Dallara/Honda during the final stint, settled for the runner-up spot for the fourth time this season. 

“It was an all-out battle,” Wilson said. “And we came out on top. So we’ll take that today. It’s a great feeling.” 

Coyne spent five winless seasons as a driver in CART, earning Rookie of the Year honors at both the Michigan and Pocono 500-mile races. Since retiring as a driver, Coyne has earned a reputation as tutor to several up-and-coming drivers, including Paul Tracy, Cristiano da Matta, Bruno Junqueira and Oriol Servia. 

“The last few years we’ve tried to do a better job with what we’ve put together,” said Coyne, who was raised on a farm in Minooka, Ill., has a degree in horticulture and ran a successful landscaping business in the Joliet, Ill., area from 1974-86. “This year, Justin became available. Some higher quality engineering staff (led by Bill Pappas) became available. And the wife and I talked about it. It was a financial commitment to do it, but we did it and said we’re going to make this thing work. We’re going to try to win this thing. And win the race and keep moving forward from here. 

“So we worked hard to pull all the pieces together, but that’s because we have a passion for the sport. And that goes back to ’78 in a trailer to today. So we’re very happy to be here.” 

The IndyCar schedule will take the series to the Streets of Toronto next Sunday and then to Edmonton City Centre Airport – venues Wilson believes will play to his team’s new-found strength. 

“You know, that’s the way we’ve kind of looked at the season,” Wilson said. “The start of the year we said, okay, with the limited testing you’re allowed in IndyCar, obviously for budget reasons, let’s focus on the road courses.

And we tested at Sebring for a couple of days. And we tested here two, three weeks ago. And it’s paid off. Putting those miles in on the road courses. Working on the set-up and getting closer. That’s what it’s all about, it’s that preparation before you get to the racetrack. So I’m hoping that’s also going to translate to Toronto and Edmonton and then the rest of the road courses after that.” 

Coyne, who said his shop in Plainfield, Ill., is home to “16, 17…something like that” fulltime employees, reiterated the team’s focus on the road and street courses with Wilson. 

“We knew how exceptional he was as a road-course driver,” said Coyne, whose team finished 20th in points in its rookie IndyCar season with Junqueira. “We know that the top teams are pretty good on the ovals. So our goal this year was to try to podium (top three) on the road courses and finish in the top-10 on the ovals.” 

Wilson started the season impressively, qualifying second and leading 52 of 100 laps at St. Petersburg en route to a third-place finish on April 5.  

“You know, we had a win in our grasp at St. Pete and let it slip away,” said Coyne, who turns 55 on Wednesday. “And here we are, we’ve got a win already. So we’re very encouraged about that. Very encouraged about the engineering staff and the team, and we’ve worked hard on pit stops. We lacked on pit stops the first couple of races and we’re much, much better at that than we were then, because you have to be, it’s so competitive. The rest of the season, the next six-week stretch will be good.” 

Wilson, the first British driver to win the FIA International F3000 championship in 2001, indicated he is pleased with the team’s development.  

“We’re slowly picking things up, and we know where the next improvement’s going to come from,” said Wilson, who competed in F1 with Minardi in 2003 before signing with Jaguar Racing for the season’s final five races. “It’s a matter of being patient and making those steps one at a time, rather than trying to do everything at once. I’ve seen and been with teams that tried to do everything before the first weekend and it’s a disaster. So it’s one step at a time; one foot in front of the other. We’ll keep learning, improving. 

“I said out there that the only thing that’s going to taste sweeter than this win is our first win on an oval. And that’s what we’ll work towards and we’ll get there.” 

Wilson’s driving peers, and Coyne’s rival owners, apparently agree. Both groups were gracious in congratulating the first-time winners. 

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Dixon, a three-time winner at The Glen and driver of the No. 9 Dallara/Honda. “It’s great for the sport. And it’s cool to see some of the small teams win. I think that’s probably one of the smallest teams that we have. I know those guys have put a lot of emphasis on the road courses. They’ve been here, they’ve tested. They’re good at what they do. It just shows when you have a good driver like Justin, he can definitely take it to the best.” 

Roger Penske, the most successful Indy-car owner in history with 138 victories, called Coyne a “great friend and great competitor” for many years. “They worked very hard for this. I thought Justin Wilson drove a great race, and he certainly deserved the victory.” 

Mike Hull, managing director of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, said he was “ecstatic” for Coyne and his organization. ” 

“He stepped up to the plate with his program this year, and he’s gotten results,” Hull said. “That’s an owner that’s taken the initiative to make it happen, and those are the kind of owners that make a difference in motor racing.”” 

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, July 7 2009