Justin Wilson’s brief message, while simple, nonetheless is heartfelt and profound.
"What I've learned in my career is you have to work at it," the veteran Verizon IndyCar Series driver told the group of youngsters at the Fortune Academy in Indianapolis. "It doesn't matter what you're doing. There are a lot of talented drivers out there and if I want to be one of them and if I want to compete and beat them, I've got to work as hard if not harder.”
It’s not only the physical and mental aspects of racing that Wilson hones daily. He’s dealt with dyslexia all his life. Wilson had to gain a strong work ethic, and he encourages groups – all of whom are dealing with language learning differences – not to give up in school or life situations.
"When you’re at school, you think ‘why am I here?’ Trust me, it’s worth it," he added. “It will help you much later in life. You can achieve anything you want if you set your mind to it and work hard.”
It gave Wilson motivation to achieve, and recently he’s been sharing his uplifting life story with local chapters of the International Dyslexia Association at Verizon IndyCar Series venues and schools. The IDA actively promotes effective teaching approaches and related clinical educational intervention strategies that address the full scope of dyslexia and related difficulties in learning to read and write.
“Even the last two or three years by talking about it and being more open, I’ve learned more about myself and how to deal with it,” he told students during the special assembly. “Don’t be afraid to talking about it and researching it. I think it’s fantastic to have all these resources now, many online, and the easier it will be for the rest of your life.”
In particular, Wilson uses Evernote – a searchable tool for everything from notes for speaking engagements to driving techniques at Verizon IndyCar Series venues.
“It still makes me nervous to stand up and speak to a lot of people,” he added. “Persevere and try to overcome fears and don’t be afraid of making mistakes and failing. It’s the only way to improve.”
Escaping social stigmatisms
Wilson, 35, has dealt in various ways with dyslexia all his life, though it wasn’t diagnosed until he was 13 in the UK. Since the age of 8, when he began karting, racing was an oasis from schoolwork and social stigmatisms.
“Obviously, it’s something I’ve had all my life and it’s just something you deal with and get on with,” said Wilson, who enters the June 28-29 Houston doubleheader race weekend 10th in the championship standings. “You’re not going to change it; just work around it. Racing was my passion from the start, and because it came to me so much easier than all my schoolwork I naturally went toward that. It was a separate world I could go into. Totally separate friends, totally different experience.
"People just put me down as lazy and stupid. That's why I focused on my racing because I didn't think I was."
Wilson progressed quickly through the formula car ladder, and reached the pinnacle of European motorsports by competing in Formula One. He ran four years in the Champ Car World Series, finishing as series runner-up in 2006 and 2007, and joined the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2008.
“I still remember I would be called to read out of this textbook and the other kids laughing at me,” he said. “As it happens, we were asked what would you like to be and I said I want to be a racing car driver. There was one guy in the back of the room who shouted forward ‘There is no way. You’re too stupid to be a racing driver.’
“That just made me determined to go forward and make something of myself. I’m going to show him. I remember sitting on the grid at my first Formula One race and thinking look who’s laughing now. It’s the hard work and dedication that has gotten me to where I am today.”
Learning through sharing
Wilson didn’t give a thought about sharing his personal story until 2012. His younger brother, Stefan, also was diagnosed with dyslexia but through extra work and tutoring was able to catch up to his classmates within two years.
“I never really understood the benefits of talking about it before, but your story might help someone,” he said. “To me, it’s just who I am and is part of my life. To see some of these children and the response you get afterwards and during the talks, how they can relate to it makes a lot of sense now.
“Anything you can do to bring awareness to dyslexia; it’s not a disease but just a learning difficulty that you have to work around and deal with. It makes life a little bit harder, but (aids) are advancing all the time.
“With my struggles, when my brother started school we got him tested straight away and found out he was dyslexic as well and they did extra things when he was 5, 6, 7 years old and he seemed to deal with school so much better than what I did just getting that help early. The more you can do early on the more you can lead a normal school life.
“In some areas of the country there’s still a limited understanding of dyslexia and not a lot of providing for some children. Schools aren’t able to do that. Just talking to anyone about it helps me understand it more, and I understand it so much more than I was in school. I know I’m different and work really hard.”
Racing line easier to read
Fortunately, Wilson says, there’s not a lot of essay writing in racing. He writes practice and race reports in note form on Evernote, and bulleted items help him understand better.
“I don’t see the word as other people do,” he explained. “I only see the middle part of the word and have to read a sentence three or four times before I know what it means. Computers have helped a lot and it’s helped my spelling, but for years spellcheck would look at it and I would say, ‘OK, to save time.’ (But) I really want to learn how to spell that. I need to understand that. ‘OK, I got the e and i wrong way around again.’
“The more conscious you are and the more you understand the better you are of fixing it.”