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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Justin Wilson's new adventure with Dale Coyne

by Gordon Kirby
With Justin Wilson in the driver's seat, Bill Pappas in charge of engineering and Z-Line Designs on board as the team's sponsor, Dale Coyne's famous little guy operation hopes to pull off a few giant-killing feats this year. Can Wilson win a street or road race or two and play a role in the year's IRL championship battle? Team owner Coyne believes those are possibilities.

"I think we can challenge for wins on the street and road circuits and I think on the ovals we can do fairly well," Coyne says. "But we have to be realistic. I think we're shooting for top tens on the ovals and I think if we can put together that mix of a season we'll do pretty well.

"We're realistic about the ovals," Coyne goes on. "We won't be challenging for the front, but our goal is to finish in the top ten. We've got to keep our nose clean, be smart about it and work on our race set-up more than some of these guys who get all involved in qualifying."

Wilson struggled on the Kansas oval last weekend but Coyne takes confidence from Bruno Junqueira's performances toward the end of last year.

"We had a really good race car at Chicagoland at the end of last season. So we learned as the season went on about what's important and what's not."

At the IRL's street race season-opener in St. Petersburg, Wilson qualified second and led 52 laps in the race before finishing third, the best overall performance for Coyne's team in its twenty-six years of operation. Wilson was a contender again at Long Beach before being eliminated in a multi-car accident but saw the cold light of reality in Kansas last weekend where he qualified seventeenth and finished a lap down in fourteenth.

A key component in Coyne's high hopes for this year is sponsor Z-Line, the USA's leading manufacturer of ready-to-assemble office and home entertainment furniture. Z-Line also sponsors Kyle Busch's Nationwide car and experimented with Coyne's team in open-wheel racing last year. Z-Line founder and CEO Jim Sexton said Coyne's decisions to hire Wilson to drive and Pappas to run his engineering group were the major reasons for Z-Line agreeing to become Coyne's primary sponsor.

"Dale and I stayed in touch over the winter and kept talking," Sexton commented. "We wanted to see if he could put the right combination of people together. Justin is a fantastic driver and gentleman and hiring Justin was a huge jump. Hiring Bill Pappas was another huge jump."

Coyne couldn't be more pleased to have Z-Line on board. "It's good to have a committed sponsor, in this economy in particular," Dale said. "Z-Line is going to do some great promotions around Justin and the team and that's exactly what we need. We're trying to build for the future with our marketing and business side as well as our team and be here for a long time."

Dale says he would prefer to run two cars as he has in recent years. "We'd like to get back to running two cars and if the right thing comes along we'll do it," he commented. "There is a chance of that at Indy and beyond."

Wilson, 30, surely is one of the most unrealized talents in global open-wheel racing. FIA F3000 champion in 2000 Justin raced for Minardi and Jaguar in F1 in 2003 before switching to Champ Car in 2004 with Eric Bachelart's team. Wilson moved to Carl Russo's RuSport team for 2005 and '06 and won in Toronto and Mexico City in '05 and Edmonton the following year. He was third in the '05 Champ Car World Series and second to Sebastien Bourdais in '06. But then Russo sold his team to Dan Petit and Justin was less competitive in '07, although he still managed to finish second to Bourdais in what turned out to be the last Champ Car World Series.

Justin appeared to have landed on his feet when he was hired by Newman/Haas/Lanigan for 2008. Both team and driver moved for the new season from Champ Car to the IRL and Wilson and teammate Graham Rahal were very competitive in most street and road races. Rahal won last year in St. Pete, of course, and Wilson scored an excellent win in Detroit later in the year.

But without enough sponsorship to field two cars Newman/Haas/Lanigan elected not to pick-up the team's option on Wilson. With few rides available Coyne's team became Wilson's fifth destination in six years but Justin believes he can make an honest showing in his latest situation.

"I like what Dale is doing with the team and I'm really impressed with Bill Pappas," Justin remarked. "Bill is what you need to get organized in this series and make the most of it. Dale is committed to it and to going out there and proving what he and Bill and I are capable of doing. The aim is to try and win the championship, to be as competitive as we can at every race and get the most points out of each race."

Wilson believes he can achieve his goals with Pappas's engineering savvy and Coyne spending more money on engineering and development thanks to Z-Line's support.

"As difficult as these transitions can be I think we've made that transition as easy as possible," Justin continued. "It does take time to really get to know each other and work on the fine details. That's what Indy car racing is all about. It's all about the details and deciphering them and that takes a little time to work out. But we've been able to do a good job right away on the street courses and it'll take time to work out those fine details so that we're strong everywhere.

"At Long Beach, for example, we started on Friday morning with exactly the same car we finished St. Petersburg and we were fifteenth quickest. So we went from having one of the best cars I've ever driven to a car that was midfield at best. So you have to learn how to work together and make the right changes for each track and all that takes time. The good thing was we did make the right changes for qualifying and the race and the car was great in the race."

Pappas emphasized that his focus this year with Wilson is on the basics.

"It's about the basics, the fundamentals and attention to detail," Pappas noted. "There aren't as many things to adjust or adapt with these cars. It's all about managing weight distribution and weight transfer. Again, it's the basics.

"We've been together since February 24th and it's all about cultivating that relationship to build and understand where Justin's emphasis is on making the car respond in the way he prefers so we can attack where he wants the car to be better. And he's very good at that."

Wilson, Pappas and Coyne are deeply aware that it's difficult to compete with the years of aerodynamic and friction reduction development done for the ovals by the IRL's big three--Ganassi, Penske and Andretti-Green. At the same time Pappas has many years of experience engineering Indy cars for Patrick Racing, Jim Hall, Derrick Walker, Panther Racing and Chip Ganassi's team where he spent seven years.

"You've got to be realistic about the ovals," Pappas observed. "At Ganassi's we spent a lot of time and the team had the resources to spend on optimizing every bit out of the car on the mile-and-a-half tracks where you're drag-limited. Everyone has the same horsepower and most people have the same drag in the car so those guys with deeper pockets have spent a little more time finding a half pound here or there and they end up being three or four pounds better.

"But we don't have that capability so we have to be good at racing. For example, you have to be able to not get out of the throttle and run in the high line. Then you'll make ground. We'll work on that really hard for every oval race.

"We have to emphasize what's important," Pappas went on. "Don't get caught staring at the trees when there's a whole forest in front of you. That's the attitude we take to tracks like Kansas, Texas and Chicago. I think the short tracks play into Justin's driving style. If we can get the car comfortable at Milwaukee and Richmond he'll be able to race well.

"Indianapolis is a whole different ballgame, of course," Pappas added. "You've got to decide what you're aiming at for each type of track and Justin's maturity enables him to be able to do that as well. A lot of drivers don't see that. They just see a bunch of oval tracks. But they're all different and Justin has that perspective and I think if we can develop that together we'll end up surprising a lot of people."

Thanks to Z-Line Coyne's team has been able to spend some money this year trying to produce a quicker oval car.

"We've built a speedway car with some of the secrets of drag and all the things you do to make it a little slipperier and faster," Coyne said. "We've designed our own front suspension as well. But of course, Ganassi, Penske and Andretti-Green have done a tremendous amount of work on their cars over the years.

"I think we know what's important," Coyne added. "We've seen and heard enough of what's happened with this car and what people have done with it. So we've worked toward that. It's a little bit different philosophy than a Champ car. It's a draggy car with not so much horsepower and the center of gravities are strange. It's not a perfect car. So you focus on basics more than you have before."

Indeed, watching the Dallara-Hondas at Long Beach put me in my mind of Formula 5000 cars thirty-five years ago because the current IRL car rolls and sometimes wallows through the rapid changes in direction required on a street circuit much like a pre-ground-effect F5000 car from those many decades ago. The ironic difference is that those old F5000 cars did the job a little better and cleaner! They also accelerated away at an astonishing, eardrum-assaulting rate. Meanwhile, Pappas says he learned a lot about coping with ill-handling cars after spending last year with Michael Waltrip's NASCAR Sprint Cup team.

"It was very interesting, very enlightening and I enjoyed it, but my heart's in open-wheel racing," Pappas said. "I love racing and NASCAR does a lot of racing! The interesting thing is what they actually do it with such an archaic piece of machinery. It's a '67 Chevrolet rear end and a Ford front end from the fifties. But it's a very interesting challenge from an engineering exercise because the car has no downforce, little tires and a high center of gravity. So how do you get it to turn?

"They do a lot of neat things in NASCAR with the geometry and the shocks to help make that happen. Some of the stuff we did down there we're trying to make work here. There's some stuff that filters through."

Wilson is confident that with Pappas's engineering leadership he will be able to edge Coyne's Z-Line car toward the front in the oval races.

"I think we'll get stronger on the ovals as the year goes on," Justin said. "Like I said, it's the details, the fine-tuning of the shocks and getting everything working together, including the team knowing what I'm looking for in the car."

Anyone who's met Justin or seen him in action knows he's both a gentleman and a fiercely motivated racer. Over Champ Car's final four years the tall Brit showed tremendous skill and style behind the wheel and was entirely the equal of Bourdais, Tracy, Allmendinger, et al., but because of the sad state of the sport today Justin has been denied a stable seat in a top team.

With Z-Line and Dale Coyne's revitalized team behind him Justin is trying to kick-start his career and his unwavering battle to succeed should provide a highly-motivating story for any young racer. If Justin doesn't emerge over the next few years as one of IndyCar's brightest stars it will be only because the sport itself has failed him. Let's hope that doesn't turn out to be the case.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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