Auto racing provided Wilson a place where his athleticism and coordination took precedence over his ability to make out the meaning of words.
"I found out at 13 I had dyslexia," Wilson said between practices for a recent race. "To that point I had struggled at school. It was hard to understand what the textbooks meant. I read them all wrong, and other people thought I was stupid or lazy, and it was frustrating."
Helping children is one of the reasons Wilson agreed to be the Baltimore-based International Dyslexia Association's ambassador and have the design on his
When the teams begin practice Friday for Sunday's
The one he picked, designed by 14-year-old Janelle Sowders, of Harrogate, Tenn., says "Dyslexia — Never Give Up," on the helmet's front and shows a race car, exhaust and some of her favorite things — an open book and a heart among them — on the sides.
"I loved the slogan and I picked her design because out of all of them, I thought this one was the coolest," Wilson said. "My helmet painter is going crazy trying to reproduce it."
Never giving up was Wilson's own mantra growing up. And he said the disability actually led him toward spending more time with race cars than he might have if he'd been able to read like other children.
"You lose self confidence and end up not enjoying school," he said. "But in racing, you use your hands and feet and it's more verbal than reading and writing. On the weekend, I couldn't wait to escape school and go to the race track.
"I was struggling in school," Wilson, a Sheffield, England native, said. "All my friends I hung out with were dyslexic. No really, four of five kids who were my friends were all diagnosed. Once we found out, we got extra time and tutors. You get attention and begin to catch up."
When he was diagnosed, he said he was reading on the level of a 7-year-old.
"By the time I was 14, I was reading like an 11-year-old," he said. "I noticed my biggest problem was I read the first couple letters and the last couple and I'd make it up in the middle. Still, these days, I do some of that. But I understand it now. It's normal for me. With my racing, if I have to write something down, I do it with bullet points. It makes it short, so if I have to come back to it, it's easier for me, as well."
This will be Wilson's first race in Baltimore. A year ago he stood on the sidelines watching other drivers race as he recovered from a crash at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course that crushed his D5 vertebrae. He had to sit out 12 weeks before being able to return at the start of this year in the Prototype cars at the 24 Hours of Daytona. He came back strong, part of the overall winning team.
This IndyCar season, he won the 2012 Firestone 550 in his
Wilson, 34, has always found a way to overcome obstacles.
In 2003 he made his way into Formula One by selling nearly 900 shares of himself to investors as a means of funding his racing career (he pays them back with a portion of his winnings), and said he decided to take on the IDA ambassadorship and the helmet-painting contest as a way to help children see even with dyslexia it is possible to achieve your goals.
He said dyslexia made him focus, and he learned he had to work hard at everything he did.
"It prepares you for life, in that regard," Wilson said. "No one is going to give you anything. What I learned in school was, 'If you want this, you've got to make it happen."
Other drivers in the series might wish Wilson hadn't learned the lesson so well.
"He's an extremely good driver," Oriol Servia said. "But the thing he's best at is staying very close to the car in front of him in the corners. I look in my mirror and there he is. I look again and there he is."
At this point, Servia stands up and reaches for his pants leg.
"He's like, you know when you are walking down the street and one of those little dogs grabs your pants leg," Servia said, beginning to shake his leg as if trying to rid himself of a nuisance dog. "I call him, 'Mad Dog', 'Crazy Dog.' I can't get him off my leg — or out of my mirror. He's on your leg and you can't shake him."
At this point, Servia is shaking his leg frantically. And then he sits down and smiles.
"Unfortunately, I've been racing him since 2003 and it's always the same," he said. "He's tough, clean and super aggressive. But a gentleman."
Wilson and Servia are currently in a battle for 12th place, a position Wilson holds by four points following last Sunday's race in Sonoma, Calif., where Wilson finished 11th and Servia came in 19th.