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Stefan Wilson honoring his late brother Justin while making first Indy 500 start

INDIANAPOLIS -- The reminders for Stefan Wilson are everywhere.

Fans outstretch their arms to offer him hugs, wearing Justin Wilson T-shirts, covered in #BadAssWilson lapel pins and decals. They all give the kid the same look. That tightened lip, head tilted "I am so sorry, are you OK?" look that anyone who has ever grieved for a loved one enjoys but privately begins to loathe. The hugs are always needed. The reminders, past a certain point, are not. No matter how well-wished, it brings back the pain again.

"It is the worst and best feeling," the Englishman says. "But the fact that here we are, months later, and my big brother still means so much to so many people. It's amazing."

On Sunday the 26-year-old will realize a lifelong dream when he competes in his first Indianapolis 500, starting on the outside of the 10th row as a rookie. But, he says, starting the race completes only part of the dream. The full dream was to take the green flag alongside his brother.

Justin Wilson participated in eight Indy 500s, a small part of his 120 career IndyCar starts and 54 races in Champ Car, once the other half of the American open-wheel racing world. He won seven times, the last coming in 2012. On Aug. 23, 2015, he was killed after a bizarre accident at Pocono Raceway, struck in the head by a tumbling nose cone from a wrecked car well up ahead. He died the next day.

Four days later, the IndyCar Series held its season finale at Sonoma Raceway. There was a pall to the weekend that would ultimately fade with the waving of the green flag and become galvanized with the crowning of champion Scott Dixon, who won a thrilling duel with Juan Pablo Montoya and immediately dedicated the day to Justin Wilson.

Somehow Stefan showed up at the track that weekend. Somehow he shouldered the grief of an entire garage and grandstand. And somehow he met with the assembled media, fielding questions with a seemingly impossible mixture of poise, disbelief and even a couple of smiles.

"To be honest, none of this seems real," he said that day in Northern California. "I look at the entrance to this tent where we're sitting and I expect to see my brother stick his head around the corner and try to make me start laughing and screw up these interviews."

The starting grid that day featured a lineup of Justin Wilson tributes, from the paint schemes on cars to T-shirts on crew members up and down pit road to the flashing of the elder Wilson's number, 25, on the light panels of every car in the field. All of this happened while a charity auction was being organized to raise money to support his two small children.

That social-media-driven auction and those fundraising efforts ended up banking hundreds of thousands of dollars, adding to untold donations from throughout every corner of the motorsports community.

Stefan remembers it all -- and he doesn't.

"It's a little like sleepwalking," he recalls. "I will never forget that feeling of everyone feeling the same way. All I ever wanted as a racer was to have the respect of the biggest names in the sport. And there they all were, lined up to tell me how they loved my brother. And they all did so much to help our family, especially my nieces. I know I looked shell-shocked that entire weekend. But it's quite the legacy for Justin."

It's a legacy that carries on far beyond the racetrack, in the bodies of an unknown group of people who received the organs Justin Wilson donated upon his death.

Stefan was at the hospital in Pennsylvania for that jarring moment when doctors ask family members whether they wish to carry out the wishes of the loved one to have organs taken and sent to those who need them.

Now he continues to do all he can to promote the cause of organ donation. His Indy 500 ride -- naturally with No. 25 -- will carry the colors of the Indiana Donor Network and its registration website, driven2savelives.org.

On Saturday afternoon, the shell-shocked look was back. But this time, it was for a good reason -- for a race. Wilson sat on a tiny grandstand on pit road at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, surrounded by his heroes and his brother's friends.

To a round of applause, his name was announced ("making his first Indianapolis 500 appearance") and he stepped up to accept his participant's watch and the handshakes of his peers.

One year ago, he was here to watch his brother compete, as he always had. One year ago, he thought his own once-promising driving career might be washed up. Instead, on Sunday he will be the only Wilson in the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

No one expects the rookie's KV Racing Technology Chevy to compete for the win. But he's in the race -- just like that day at Sonoma in August and just as his big brother would want it. When he pulls his helmet on, the hugs and grieving and looks of pity will vanish. It will be time, finally, to go racing.

"When I snap this visor down, everything else goes away," he says, motioning to a helmet that features two paint jobs, one half his customary design, the other his brother's. "You know who used to say that all of the time? My brother."