Leigh Diffey

The best part about life as a sports broadcaster is storytelling. The story is what drives the passion. For me, sitting in the NBC Sports IndyCar announce booth alongside Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy, the story didn’t get any better than the way the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season concluded in Sonoma, Calif.

With extremely heavy hearts, our broadcast team took to the air with two very important goals: to communicate a fitting farewell to Justin Wilson, who had tragically passed away just days before the race after the horrific Pocono crash, and, secondly, invite the viewers to step into the slipstream of the gripping championship-deciding finale.

We all have our personalized Justin Wilson stories and experiences with the “Gentle Giant,” and all of them share a similar theme: what an incredible human being he was. But standing on the NBCSN host set at Sonoma Raceway alongside Townsend and PT – two guys who are equally as fierce and determined but deliver it in different ways – was something I’ll never forget. Watching and listening to them speak about the tragedy was tough, to say the least. Coupled with that, I had my own job to do as well – which was perhaps one of the most difficult things I have done in 20 years of sports television.

The entire broadcast team promised ourselves we needed to pay tribute to J-Dub, but then we were obligated to call a good race and tell the championship story as an added mark of respect to Justin. We did that and, boy, what a story it was.

While heading to Sonoma, and even at the track in the early part of the weekend, it seemed most were watching and talking about Juan Pablo Montoya, Graham Rahal and reigning champion Will Power’s outside chance at defending his Verizon IndyCar Series title. But there wasn’t an abundance of hoo-ha about Scott Dixon. And that’s just the way the now four-time champ likes it!

Whether it be discussing it at dinner or over a coffee in the morning, the members of the broadcast and production crew had our own opinions on what was to go down or who was to be crowned champion. Obviously, at that point, it was pure speculation. 

The most captivating element was that it wasn’t until Ryan Briscoe and JPM had crossed the finish line that any of us could take a confident, factual stance as to who would get their hands on the Astor Cup.

For a championship that was led by Montoya at every stage – witnessing (and commentating on) a finale that saw that No. 1 status slip through his fingers almost seemed unbelievable or unfair. Regarded as one of the most diverse and naturally talented drivers the world has ever seen, this kind of stuff just doesn’t or isn’t supposed to happen to a man of Montoya’s make. But then again, he’d never really faced Dixon in a straight-up championship fight.

When JPM won the CART title in 1999, Dixon was in Indy Lights, and in the years of Dixon’s three titles, Montoya was either in F1 or NASCAR. Sure, the two raced each other in the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship, but they finished third (Dixon) and fourth (Montoya). Any driver will tell you it’s different when it’s for all the marbles.

I love calling races; the competition and the outcome simply thrills me. To commentate on two drivers the caliber of Scott Dixon and Juan Pablo Montoya is enjoyable enough, but to have them finish a season tied on points and the champion be determined by a count back on the number of wins achieved that season – exhilarating!

Justin Wilson would never have wanted to be the story on that Sonoma weekend. His selflessness would have prevented it, but the entire INDYCAR paddock wanted 2015 to end on a high out of respect to the Wilson family and racing fraternity. It did, and I feel privileged to have called it.