Robert Wickens was determined from the very first days after his life-changing 2018 IndyCar accident not to let it define — or end — his racing career.
The Canadian was 29 years old at the time, engaged to be married, and a breakout rookie star in a United States-based racing series after a successful career in Europe. Wickens nearly won his IndyCar debut, scored four podiums, and was sixth in the championship race when he sailed into the fence at Pocono Raceway with three races remaining in the season.
He was paralyzed from the waist down.
Wickens moved to a rehabilitation facility in Colorado, at first as an in-patient, before he moved into an extended stay motel to continue the work. Six hours a day, six days a week.
“In the months and years that I spent rehabbing my body, trying to get the best quality of life possible for myself and for my family, always in the back of my mind I was wanting to return to racing,” Wickens told The Associated Press. “I wanted my own closure on my racing career. How it ended in Pocono in 2018 was not how I was going to end things.
“I’d been racing since I was 7 years old. It’s all I know. And before I started another motorsports journey, I felt like I needed closure on me as a driver.”
Wickens was retained by his race team (he drove for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, which is now Arrow McLaren) as a consultant but was still angling for ways to drive. He got his opportunity with Bryan Herta Autosport and Hyundai, which had experience in building and racing cars fitted with a hand control system to accommodate a paralyzed driver.
Just two seasons and 19 races into his comeback, Wickens heads into the Touring Car Class finale of the Michelin Pilot Challenge season as the championship leader. Wickens and co-driver Harry Gottsacker start Friday’s race at Road Atlanta for BHA in Braselton, Georgia, with a 20-point lead over JDC-Miller MotorSports.
Wickens and Gottsacker control their own destiny as they try to win Herta a fifth-consecutive TCR championship: finish higher than JDC-Miller, or, no lower than eighth overall in class, and they win the title.
It’s made Wickens even more determined to continue his comeback and remain a racecar driver.
Five years after the accident, Wickens knows he’ll never walk without assistance, which had been his initial goal.
“From a sensory standpoint, I can feel touch OK,” Wickens said. “Where I struggle is my legs are not equally strong. If I have assistance to get to a standing point, and if I have something to hold on to, I can stand up. But I can’t take three steps without holding onto something because I don’t have any core muscles. When I take a step, I can’t balance my upper body, so I basically just fall.”
He said he plateaued in neurological regeneration and hasn’t been able to activate any new muscles in nearly three years. Wickens works on strengthening the muscles he can voluntarily control, and just as important, his own mental health as he’s redefined what was a once perfect life.
“You just try to make the best quality of life with what you have, but there’s not a day that goes by where there’s not a moment that you are frustrated about being in a wheelchair,” Wickens said. “You might be having a great day and then one thing can unravel it all. Sometimes it is someone being uneducated. Sometimes it is people not being very nice. Or, sometimes it is as stupid as someone not parking properly and now I can’t get my wheelchair ramp down until they are done grocery shopping.”
Wickens says the mental struggles have been far more difficult than trying to recover from his physical injuries.
“The physical-side, I’d been training to be a Formula One driver since I was a little kid, so I was used to putting in the hours in the gym and it was almost therapeutic for me,” Wickens said. “But when you get back to your hotel room, and you’re alone and you’re trying to figure out your new life, it’s hard and you are in a confined space.
“I think being competitive by nature probably helped me without me understanding that at the time.”
Wickens would like to return to BHA for a third season next year, but said talks haven’t started on 2024 plans. Ultimately, he’d like to move into IMSA’s top Weathertech Series and continue climbing his way back toward IndyCar.
He and Herta would like to enter Wickens in the Indianapolis 500 but it’s such a difficult project to put together because an Indy car with hand controls suited for Wickens doesn’t yet exist. He estimated it would cost $500,000 on top of an Indy 500 budget just to build the car and test it, with no guarantee the car would be race worthy.
But he’s determined to continue his life as a racer. No matter what happens Friday at Road Atlanta — a balance of performance rule has given JDC-Miller a faster car than the Hyundai — Wickens is content with where he is now.
He and his wife, Karli, welcomed a son last year during a whirlwind 10 days: Wickens won his first race, had to flee midweek sponsor events when Karli went into labor at home in Indianapolis, then immediately fly to Canada for the next race.
Wickens capped the week with three Ws — wins at Watkins Glen and his home track in Toronto, as well as the birth of son, Wesley.
On Monday, championship or not, Wickens is taking his family on a Disney Cruise.
“I feel like my life has a slightly different meaning now. It’s taken a lot of work with psychiatry and my sports psychologist, just to to try to find my way again,” Wickens said. “I never embarked to be a racecar driver to be inspirational or to be the face of something. I just wanted to win races and drive cars.
“Now I feel there is a bigger story than just driving. And I think if I can achieve both those things, and bring awareness to spinal cord injuries, by being a racing driver again, I think it’s a win-win.”
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing