It was a chance for drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series to get ready for the 2015 season — "Spring Training" at Barber Motorsports Park this past Monday and Tuesday but there was one driver walking through the paddock without his helmet or driving suit.
This wasn’t a driver hoping to break into the big time such as young Conor Daly. Instead, this was a driver who many consider one of the top drivers in all of IndyCar — a driver with seven career IndyCar victories (four in Champ Car and three in the current IndyCar Series) and a former driver of note in Formula One.
Justin Wilson thought by now he would be testing an Andretti Autosport Honda or he would be back in Dale Coyne Racing’s Honda. So far, however, those deals have stalled out and Wilson may be on the sidelines if he does not have a ride for the March 29 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
There were times during IndyCar’s long offseason that a new deal on a winning team was all but completed. Problem is, they have stalled.
"It’s just been a roller coaster of an offseason," Wilson told FOXSports.com at Barber earlier this week. "There have been three occasions where I’ve thought, ‘Great, we’re all set. Next week we will get a deal sorted for a full season and it will be great. It will be perfect.’ Then next week comes and the deal collapsed. It’s been one of those offseasons where you have a couple good days and then a couple bad days – this cycle or up and down, up and down.
"It just didn’t happen. It didn’t work out like I was hoping.
"There have been three times with two different teams where I thought we were good to go. And then something happened and two days later the deal was off. The sponsor was all set; looking good and it fell through."
Wilson discussed his frustrating offseason while seated under the awning at the Honda Motorhome as the sound of Honda and Chevrolet race cars zoomed by preparing for the season. The driver from Sheffield, England tried to remain upbeat but admitted at times that has not been easy.
"It’s frustrating," Wilson admitted. "It ticks you off but what can you do? You can jump up and down and scream about it but at the end of the day they either have the money, found the money, got the sponsor or they are making it happen to get to the track. What I’m working on is to try to be less dependent on the situation and be in the right place at the right time. I’m trying to get things sorted and try to take my own deals to the table.
"It’s just a hard world we live in right now and it’s not easy."
The state of big-time IndyCar racing includes talented drivers that are paid well such as three-time IndyCar Series champion and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner Scott Dixon, 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power, 2012 IndyCar champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, just to name a few. But at the back of the field are drivers that have to buy their way in to a ride either with family fortune or by bringing a sponsorship package to the team.
So, what is the going price for an IndyCar ride?
"How competitive do you want to be?" Wilson asked. "You are looking at anywhere from $2 million to $5 million from getting in the door, getting in the right place. Everything is a trade off between your reputation, how much money you can bring and what the team can do around that. In the past, it would be from zero to $3 million but this year it’s between $2 million and $5 million. If you are really good it takes $2 million to $3 million where before it was zero.
"My conversations with Dale Coyne and Michael Andretti, they don’t come to me and say this is how much we need? When we have been talking have said they were working with a sponsor, trying to put a deal together and would you be interested? Dale has been the same way working on a sponsorship deal and if it works out he would be in touch."
Wilson could have probably agreed to a deal with Coyne back in October but the former Formula One driver had some promising interest from Andretti, who owns the top Honda team in the series. It’s a team that has won four IndyCar Series titles and three Indianapolis 500s since joining the series in 2003. Wilson believed Andretti’s team gave him his best chance to achieve his goals of winning a championship and an Indy 500.
"I’m still talking to Dale, though," Wilson told FOXSports.com "There might have been an option in October to stay. Dale was working on things as well. Sometimes you decide you need to figure out where my career is going and what I want to do. I still appreciate everything Dale has done for me in the past. He puts out a nice team. He never made promises he couldn’t keep. I still have a lot of respect for what he does. I just wasn’t totally sure where I fit in that equation and where I wanted to be in life. So I decided to take a step back and see what happens. I think it was the right thing for Dale and the right thing for me. He needs somebody that will be the right fight for his team as well."
At one time during the offseason, Andretti was confident he would have five full-time entries in the Verizon IndyCar Series and that included full-time rides for newcomers Simona de Silvestro and Wilson. As of today, though, neither driver has a full-time ride and de Silvestro has a commitment for just the season-opening race at St. Petersburg.
Both de Silvestro and Wilson are hopeful they will be in an Andretti Autosport ride for the May 24 Indianapolis 500 but nothing is confirmed. And Andretti admitted it looks like he will have three full-time entries in IndyCar with a fourth car that is shared between several drivers.
"I’m sure that is frustrating for Michael and frustrating for drivers like myself and Simona de Silvestro," Wilson said. "Yes, it sucks but at the end of the day we are pretty fortunate to do what we do. Jumping up and down and complaining and saying life is not fair. Well, a lot of people don’t get to drive racing cars and we do."
So here is Wilson, a very talented and proven race driver who is far better than many of the drivers that were testing at Barber Motorsports Park this week. It would be enough to make some people hang their heads but Wilson keeps his head up and continues to be smile, even thought that has been difficult at times.
"It’s really hard on my family - not knowing what is going on," Wilson said. "I speak to my parents every day because they were a big influence in my career in the early days, got me into racing and pushed me and supported me as a kid. It’s hard for them. It’s hard on my wife not knowing where the income is coming in this year. It’s hard on many different levels. To come to a race track and hang out and not drive is so frustrating. You just can’t think negative. You have to think positive. It’s part of being a driver.
"If you think negative there is no point in showing up. There is no point in getting in a race car if you think you are not going to win. When you get in a race car no matter what happens you think you have a chance of winning and you are capable of winning. Otherwise, don’t get in.
"It’s the same with coming here. I have to believe if I came here thinking there is no point then you won’t - it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy and you will never get anything. You have to stay positive and stay focused and try to be in the right place at the right time. A lot of it is luck. You see guys fall out of the sport all the time that were wrong place; wrong time. You can’t influence that.
"I’m trying everything I can to make sure I’m not one of those victims. I want to get back into IndyCar full time. I still want to win the championship and that is the Indy 500. That is my focus."
An out of work race driver continues to have expenses as he looks for a ride. Money that has been saved can disappear pretty quickly, plus Wilson has a wife and kids to provide for.
"It’s a scary prospect," he admitted. "Maybe 2015 is a tough year in every aspect but it can lead to something in 2016. That is where my wife came in and said if this is the right move for you and your career I’ll support it no matter what happens."
Wilson once had investors who bought shares of stock in his career and that helped fund him from one series to another with stops in Formula One, Champ Car and IndyCar. But that arrangement has dissolved and Wilson is in charge of his own destiny.
"That ended at the end of 2012," Wilson explained. "It was a 10-year process so whatever was saved up got paid back to the shareholders. That was December 31, 2012. That allowed me to change my approach and try to look at the overall picture of things. I think about me as a driver and my career as opposed to what is the best financial decision for the investors? I don’t have to wear that hat any more. Now, I can think what is my best chance to win the Indy 500? That has allowed me to change my approach and evaluate things.
"It’s hard to find the right guy at the right time and who is interested and tell them spend $2 million to $5 million on IndyCar and it will be great. The odds of that are one in 5000 so there are a lot more doors to knock on.
"I’m on door No. 57. There is still a long way to go."
Be sure to catch Bruce Martin’s Verizon IndyCar Series Report on RACEDAY on FOX Sports Radio every Sunday from 6-8 a.m. Eastern Time.