Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 1:45 PM
WEST ALLIS, Wis. — Justin Wilson still remembers a time when his classmates considered it laughable that he might one day grow up to become a professional race car driver.
The IndyCar Series driver had a tough time growing up in Sheffield, England, struggling to read lessons or do the writing it took to complete his school work. Only later, around age 14, would he be diagnosed with dyslexia.
"I really struggled at school," Wilson said. "I remember one day, the teacher asking what you want to be when you grow up. And everyone went down and did their thing and it got to me: ‘I want to race cars.’ And everyone laughed. What’s wrong with you guys? And then some joker stood up, ‘Oh, you’ll never race cars. You’re too stupid."’
Today, Wilson has seven career IndyCar victories, including the June 9 race at Texas Motor Speedway. His success has come despite his continued struggles with dyslexia, a reading disability that occurs when the brain does not properly recognize and process certain symbols.
When Wilson looks at a word on a page, he generally can recognize the letters at the beginning of the word and the letters at the end of it — but not the letters in the middle.
"So I still get sentences wrong. I still spell wrong. I still read things the wrong way," Wilson said.
Once diagnosed, Wilson received specialized instruction at school. But reading remains difficult for him, even today.
Asked to shoot promotional videos at a race earlier this year, Wilson had a hard time reading and reciting a short script.
"They give you these cards, and I read them, and I read it all backwards — ‘This doesn’t make any sense,"’ Wilson said. "And you’ve got a camera there, so you feel like, ‘I can’t read.’ It’s easy to start panicking and read it too fast and say the wrong words. I just have to calm down and say it slowly and just be very deliberate. Anything more than two sentences, I freak out. Standing in front of people reading just doesn’t work. I have to just do a couple of bullet points and wing it from there, because I can’t read what I’ve written."
While Wilson occasionally reads — mostly about racing — it’s a constant struggle.
"I don’t read books," Wilson said. "People say, ‘What’s the last book you read?’ Why would you do that? It sounds like agony to me."
Wilson hasn’t been hiding his condition by any means. In the short biography on his Twitter page, it says, "Dyslexic in control, tweets might not make sense." But now Wilson plans to become more active as a spokesman for awareness of the condition, working with dyslexia advocacy groups around the world.
"The big thing that stands out to me is to let kids know you can follow your dreams," Wilson said. "You can do what you want to do and it’s not going to hold you back. There’s going to be extra work and you’ve got to find ways around it. But it’s also better when you find this earlier. More understanding for dyslexia’s definitely going to help."
Because school was so difficult for Wilson, he needed an escape. With support from his family, he found it in racing.
"Just to be in control, out on my own, don’t have to listen to anyone," Wilson said. "I had confidence to just be my own person. I knew from an early age this is what I wanted to do. It’s the one thing that came easier to me than anything else. Sure, you’ve still got to work at everything in life. But this thing came easy, whereas everything else, all my schoolwork, even soccer at school, it just wasn’t easy. And racing always was. You just naturally go towards it. I knew from the first day I drove a go-kart that was my calling."
Since then, Wilson has met several other drivers who have dyslexia — including Formula One racing great Jackie Stewart, a high-profile advocate for awareness. Actor Patrick Dempsey, who races sports cars, also has spoken publicly about his struggles with dyslexia.
Wilson’s brother has it, too.
"Because of my struggles, my parents got him tested when he was about 6," Wilson said. "He was really young and had a few extra lessons early on. He seemed to deal with life a lot better, school life."
Wilson said an early diagnosis is critical to getting kids the help they need.
"There’s different forms of dyslexia, understanding where your strengths and weaknesses are can help you deal with it," Wilson said. "Until that point, you really struggle. Like I said, I was told I was stupid. For kids who have got dyslexia — there’s many successful people around the world that have this, and in some ways it makes you more determined to prove yourself. And you can do what you want to do. You can fulfill your dreams, no matter what it is."
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