How Robert Wickens defied expectations on his heroic return to glory
After adjusting to a new reality from his life-changing accident, Robert Wickens is challenging expectations all over again. Now competing in an IMSA support class, the Canadian is back to winning races and setting the bar even higher on what he feels is possible.
Last month Robert Wickens became a race winner again, defying his paralysis by using hand controls to score victory at Watkins Glen’s IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge event with Hyundai. On the same day at Goodwood’s Festival of Speed, disabled MotoGP world champion Wayne Rainey rode his Yamaha YZR500 again and quadriplegic Sam Schmidt – Robert’s IndyCar team boss during his Pocono horror crash – drove a McLaren 720S using head movements to guide the car.
“I guess it was a great weekend for disability awareness, right?” smiles Wickens. “It’s all pretty cool stuff.”
There hasn’t been a whole lot for Robert to smile about after 19 August 2018 at Pocono. The hardest consequence of his devastating shunt was the lack of prognosis; nobody knew what recovery he might achieve given the spinal cord contusion he’d sustained. The only thing that did appear agonisingly certain was a halt to his top-flight motorsport career.
Turns out he was thinking of it as merely a pause…
Less than four years on, 33-year-old Wickens was back in Victory Lane – albeit at a lower level than the rarefied atmosphere of IndyCar, Formula Renault 3.5 or the DTM where he shone so brightly before. Sharing his adapted Hyundai Elantra N with fellow Canadian Mark Wilkins in a two-hour race at The Glen, Wickens won the TCR class of IMSA’s second-tier series for Bryan Herta Autosport. His last victory was a Nurburgring DTM round for Mercedes in September 2017 or, as he likes to point out, “22 races ago – it sounds much better than in years!”
And a week later, despite missing practice and qualifying to be present at the birth of his first child, Wickens won again with Wilkins at Mosport.
Wickens celebrates victory at Mosport alongside co-driver Wilkins
Photo by: Bryan Herta Autosport
Wickens’ world changed forever on the first racing lap of the 500-mile event at Pocono as he vied for fourth position with Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay approaching the fastest corner of the tri-oval. Perhaps the best description of what happened next was via live TV commentator Paul Tracy: “That’s going to be tight through there…oh my God!”
Following the lightest of touches between his right-front tire with the left-rear corner of Hunter-Reay, who’d expected Wickens to back out, a horrifying crash unfolded. After their initial contact, Wickens’ right-front wheel rode up the nose of Hunter-Reay’s spinning car, launching him to the top of the SAFER barrier, still traveling at 212mph.
His car briefly rode on its side before the front end pushed up into the debris fencing, the worst-case scenario in an IndyCar oval shunt. An immense impact flung the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports car into a wild series of flat spins, as RHR passed by underneath, before it landed heavily, back on track, in a ball of flame.
Robert Wickens, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda, Pietro Fittipaldi, Dale Coyne Racing Honda crash
Photo by: Todd Dziadosz / Motorsport Images
Robert’s injury list was truly awful: Thoracic spinal fracture, neck fracture, tibia and fibula fractures to both legs, fractures in both hands, fractured forearm, elbow and four ribs and a pulmonary contusion. A lot of healing would be done but there was one more wound, one that perhaps all racing drivers fear most – a ‘spinal cord injury’. Three words that Wickens would learn can mean a vast array of outcomes, including that of his team owner Schmidt.
“When you have a spinal cord injury you have to forcefully learn human anatomy,” says Wickens, in the same matter-of-fact style he’s always had when talking about his racing. “Sam and I, although we’re both paralysed, they are entirely different injuries.
“He has a high-neck fracture, so no control over his hands or legs. I’m a T5 injury, basically chest-down. Sam was a very good sounding board early on; he knew great specialists and that was very helpful. Once I was into rehab, I was on my own, but I had the support from my family, which has been amazing.
“We’re selfish as drivers, we get into that racecar and we put our life on the line. We don’t think of the ripple effect on your support system, how that reacts. Karli didn’t sign up for this life, she’s just an innocent bystander adapting to her new surroundings. I’m lucky I found a good one! She’s been incredible; she pushes me when I need to be pushed and she knows when I need help.”
Robert Wickens with Karli Wickens, Bryan Herta Autosport, Hyundai Veloster N TCR
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
The journey to now has been painful in many more ways than one. Not only hard work physically, to regain as much functionality of his body as possible, but the mental strain of an uncertain future and the apparent loss of his livelihood.
“It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure,” he reflects. “Prior to that accident I’d not broken any bone apart from ribs. You break a leg, once you’ve had it reset and cast, do the rehab, you know you’re as good as new down the line.
“But with my injury, there was no prognosis, so they couldn’t tell me anything. You are shooting in the dark and try to have faith and positivity… It’s so tough. Doctors can’t tell you that you’ll never walk again, well some did – a lot did, actually! Because I was so optimistic, I thought they were just trying to bring me back down.
“In the beginning I was worried if I’d be able to feel the car again, that feeling you get through your backside and up your back. But I have been able to regain a lot of that feel, and honestly I have as good a feel in the car now as I did before” Robert Wickens
“From a private life perspective, so much changes. Even the way you go to the bathroom. Everything is different. At the beginning of my recovery I was so stubborn that I would recover, I refused to learn those new techniques. I was like ‘I won’t need to learn how to do that – I’ll be fine, I’m going to walk out of this place, you’ll see!’
“To prove a point, 10 months later I walked out of hospital with a walking frame. Obviously that wasn’t how I wanted it – I wanted the slow-motion heel-click at the front door, you know! It took three and half years to get to where I am now.”
A primary concern of Wickens’ racing comeback was whether he’d lose his feel for a car’s grip. Of course, he’d shown an abundance of ability in that regard previously, but admits he feared that the injury might have taken that away.
Wickens has spent four years recovering and adapting to his life-changing accident at Pocono
Photo by: Bryan Herta Autosport
“I didn’t have any feeling in the beginning after my accident,” he reveals. “I lost all motor and sensory skills below my point of injury, but through my neuro recovery, I was able to gain back a lot of sensation. I have a lot of sensation for touch, but I struggle with pain receptors, with hot and cold. For me, hot feels like that icy muscle-rub hot – it’s cold but hot, you know that feeling? Hot feels cold and cold feels cold. So that’s weird, and I’ve had to learn my new normals.
“So in the beginning, I was worried if I’d be able to feel the car again, understeer or oversteer, that feeling you get through your backside and up your back. I think you still feel it through G-force, but it’s a lot like driving a simulator: you lose a lot of that sensory stuff so it’s lot more on visual clues, and the weight of the steering wheel is very important.
“But I have been able to regain a lot of that feel, and honestly I have as good a feel in the car now as I did before.”
As he waited for his chance to get back behind the wheel, Wickens worked with Arrow McLaren SP as a driver coach and consultant in IndyCar. As he likes to phrase it, he spent some time on the “smart side” of the pit wall.
“Staying sharp is the best way to put it,” he says of his role. “Using your brain to find opportunities to improve the car, looking at onboard videos and competitor analysis, keeping in that mindset with a high-level team. I feel like I bring a lot to the table, having raced at an elite level since 2011. I’ve learned a lot of things along the way!
“It also feels amazing to be back behind the wheel; I spent three years over on the smart side of the pit wall, and I felt out of place! I knew I needed to race again, for my own closure. To succeed and continue what I love doing, or finally acknowledge that chapter of my life is done.
“I’d like to think I’m succeeding so far, and it feels like a new beginning in my quest to get back to that elite level of motorsport again.”
Robert Wickens, Michael Johnson, Bryan Herta Autosport, Hyundai Veloster N TCR
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
That journey began at Christmas 2020, when Robert’s phone rang from an unknown caller ID. “Bryan [Herta] just called me up out of the blue, I didn’t even have his number in my phone, so I was curious right from the start: ‘Oh hi. What do you want?’
“He said: ‘From one driver to another, do you want to drive again? It’s been a while…’ So I replied: ‘One-thousand percent yes!’ He said ‘That’s cool, it’s what I figured – we’ll be in touch’ And that was the end of the call.
“Of course, it takes a financial undertaking, we had to adapt the car to hand controls that are safe and reliable. I saw Michael Johnson [paralysed as a youngster in a motorbike racing crash] had joined Bryan Herta Autosport and I put those two pieces together. Sure enough, Bryan called me three months later and asked ‘Are you busy on May 4? Let’s go to Mid-Ohio and do a track day. You can get behind the wheel again’.
“It was just the coolest phone call I’ve ever had! The Johnson family and Michael let me borrow his racecar [Hyundai Veloster], and I drove in anger again – for the first time with hand controls. They felt really weird to start with. I’d spent enough time on iRacing to get my simulator hand controls to be second nature, but their different location… I found that a little confusing.
“It was a wet day, miserable and cold. No glamor! But it was awesome and it totally kickstarted everything. I proved to myself that I could still do it, that I never doubted myself.
“It proved to Bryan and Hyundai what the potential was, the return on investment, if I returned to race with them. That gloomy day at Mid-Ohio got them equal publicity than they’d got for the rest of the season. It was a great story. So then we had to jump through the hoops we needed to make it happen.”
Getting back on track for real
With Hyundai’s support, Wickens was a professional racing driver again in BHA’s four-time championship-winning team. The season kicked off with the support race to the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, so how did that feel?
“It didn’t quite feel business as usual until the pre-grid,” he says. “They had the grid walk going on, but it wasn’t until I got my helmet on and they strapped me into the car – that’s when it clicked. I remember thinking, ‘This is cool – I’ve missed this!’
“First corner was like riding a bike! I’d watched loads of race tapes, to work out any trends, so I knew I didn’t wanna be on the outside because that’s where everyone ends up – so I decided to keep it tight and gained a spot or two, it was exactly what I wanted to do.”
A charging stint from Wickens led to a third-place finish first time out but highlighted the need for a faster driver change – which became a recurring theme.
“I had a lot of internal goals that I wanted to achieve,” he says of that initial race event. “The first one was, I didn’t want to lose a places on the opening lap. From there, my goal was to finish my stint as the leading Hyundai car. I didn’t tick that box – but we were close!
“I got the car into podium contention and Mark brought it home, fighting his ass off to keep us on the podium.”
Wickens and his team took time to improve their pitstops - enabling them to save vital seconds and fight for victory
Photo by: Bryan Herta Autosport
Since Daytona, poor fortune – including contact with rivals – plagued them until Watkins Glen, where everything came together.
“It felt great, a long time coming for Mark and I,” he says. “We felt like we’d been on the doorstep of a win and just had to keep doing what we were doing.
“We focus a lot on pitstops. With myself, Mark and Jim Leo [of PitFit] who helps extract me from the car, we knew the driver change has been the weak part of our season until now. Most of our bad luck from the previous three races came because we’d lost positions in the pits. We came in from the lead at Sebring and came out in 10th!
“[At Watkins Glen] we finally did one in the race as good as we can in practice. It was a great feeling to see the car leave so quickly and see it leading. To watch him close out the win was an amazing experience but seeing Mark take the flag, you certainly don’t have as much adrenaline as you do in the car.”
How the brake system works on his Elantra
One part of that pitstop process is switching off the hand controls that Wickens uses, so that Wilkins can drive the car in a more regular manner.
Robert explains how his part works: “The brake system is a one-to-one system: I pull the ring and then linkages push down the physical brake pedal. But then I have a brake booster that helps me generate more pressure. I can get to about 50-60 bar on a peak hit, but that’s not sustainable for an hour or two-hour stint, because I’m pulling with the force of 120 pounds every time. So the booster helps me get that final 20-30 bar of pressure that I need. It relieves 50 percent of the weight. But try squeezing 60-80 pounds… it’s taken a toll on my hands.
“Using a wheelchair for so long, my grip strength got really good. But every time I do my first run, my hands get really cramped. It’s a shock to the system.”
Hyundai Elantra N Hand Controls enable Robert Wickens to utilize his throttle, brake and shifting inputs for his Elantra N TCR
Photo by: Bryan Herta Autosport
Even with two wins under his belt – he and Wilkins followed up the Glen breakthrough with an emotional home victory at CTMP (née Mosport) – Wickens feels that there is scope for improvement.
“We’re getting there here – there’s definitely opportunities to make the system better,” he says. “But it’s back to that question of time and resource with limited testing available. What do you do?
“We’ve had the same system since the start of the season and there’s definitely limitations to it in terms of the brake feeling. For zero to 20 percent brake application, I’m kind of 20 percent or nothing. Anything we can do to help that would be a huge gain, for finesse. In long corners, like at Laguna Seca, you need a little bit of brake in it to keep the nose down, but it’s either over-the-top or not enough; it’s a hard balance.”
But a lack of testing availability makes it hard for the team to give him an upgraded system.
He adds: “We can’t go straight into a race weekend with an updated system without fully understanding it. We’ve definitely met the capacity of my hand control system now; it’s reliable and I’m competitive with it. I’m getting more and more comfortable, which is why I think there’s more performance coming at each race.”
Body talk: How his physical recovery has plateaued
While improvements can always be made to a racing car, how about Wickens’ own body? Science, like motorsport, is forever striving for greater achievements – is there work going on that might help Robert’s physical situation?
"It’s known as a snowflake injury; everyone is different even though it looks the same. It’s how well your body can reroute its nervous system around the injured area" Robert Wickens
“It’s the million-dollar question,” he sighs. “In the medical science field, there are always developments. But everything is a risk.
“When I first had the accident Sam Schmidt told me: ‘You’re going to be told all the time that they’re on a spinal cord breakthrough – cures and developments. Twenty years ago, when I had my accident, they told me exactly the same thing.’
“He said: ‘I hate to break it to you, it’s going to pull on your emotions and it’ll be a fucker of a recovery – and you’ll be teased with people suggesting things like stem cells, human growth hormones and implant stimulants.’
“There are lots of different things out there but it’s what you’re willing to give up to try to get better. I was fortunate to regain quite a bit of function, by no means can I walk freely, I’ll need a wheelchair probably for the duration of my life. But I can stand for a short period of time.
“So it’s one of the hardest parts; with no prognosis for a spinal cord injury, it’s just ‘good luck’ on what functionality you get back. It’s known as a snowflake injury; everyone is different even though it looks the same. It’s how well your body can reroute its nervous system around the injured area."
Having made an encouraging recovery, Wickens accepts he will need a wheelchair for the rest of his life
Photo by: IMSA
His accident propelled him into ‘the community’ of spinal cord injury victims, each with their own story and situation.
“I try to do my best to stay off the forums,” he says. “It’s a slippery slope to compare injuries. You and I could have, on paper, the same spinal cord injury and our recovery would look entirely different. It’s known as a snowflake injury; every one is different even though it looks the same. It’s how well your body can reroute its nervous system around the injured area.
“The best way it was described to me was imagine you’re drinking through a straw, and that straw is your spinal cord. Everything flows through it just fine. If you pinch that straw, everything gets super-constricted. In my case, the injury was spinal contusion. The straw is pinched and the amount of nerves that make it through is heavily compromised.
“Some make it through, which is why I have some mobility, but it’s not quick, my reactions aren’t what they were. So when I stand up, and start losing my balance, I can’t correct myself. By the time I realise I’m falling, I’m behind the eight ball already!
“From a prognosis standpoint, I’m chairbound until there’s a real medical breakthrough in the science field. Wings For Life is doing a lot of really great things, they’re desperately trying to find a cure. Coming from an automotive standpoint, a spinal cord is like a wiring harness; we change those in and out of racecars all the time, right? If we can have heart transplants, why can’t we do spinal cord transplants? I guess there’s a lot of wiring to be done!
“At some point, hopefully in my lifetime, there will be that breakthrough that gives better solutions for recovery.”
Robert Wickens, Bryan Herta Autosport, Hyundai Veloster N TCR
Photo by: Robert Wickens
So where does he go from here?
With less than half a season remaining in IMSA’s second tier series, and his winning streak putting him in title contention, thoughts will soon turn to next year’s program. Now he feels he’s reestablished himself with the BHA Hyundai TCR squad, Wickens wants to make further progress in the longer term.
“I’m happy with what we’re doing this year, it’s a great proof of concept of what’s still possible,” he says. And when pressed on future options, he replies: “I can’t see what might open up, I have to make them open up. I gotta force the issue. Now is that corporately? Because it’s easier to go to a team and say ‘I’ll pay for the hand controls’ but I don’t have that luxury at the moment.
“I’m ready to get back to that elite level of motorsport. Moving forward, I wanna challenge for victories at the top level, be it sprint-style like Formula E or IndyCar or if it’s sportscar racing in IMSA or WEC – there’s a lot of categories out there that I think are a level that would give me that fulfillment of racing for a pro team against pro drivers. That’s where I wanna get to.
“We run at such a high level at Bryan Herta Autosport that I truly believe we can jump right in to the WeatherTech Championship and be successful, we’re so professional. Bryan knows what it takes to operate at that level, he’s won Indy 500s as a team owner. We’re at a way-higher level than most of our competitors here in Michelin Pilot Challenge.
“Bryan is such a standup guy, along with Sean Jones and Eric Chase. All the partners are such awesome people. They wanted to give me the opportunity to prove what I can do. Hopefully we can use this as a good foundation and a stepping stone to get to bigger and better things.
“My goal within America would be to get back to IndyCar again or race an LMDh. Every driver wants to win a race overall against the fastest people. The more electronic assistance on the car, the better it is for my hand controls with brake-by-wire systems. The Gen3 Formula E car would probably be the easiest to adapt of any car in the world right now. I’m strongly looking into it. Honestly, that would be really cool.
“I want to race against the same people I was racing against before my injury. I know I can compete with them. It’s a matter of coming with a hand control system that doesn’t handcuff me to compete.
“Each higher category creates its own complications. A faster car, with more downforce, requires more braking force, which requires more pneumatic assistance for me to achieve the same brake pressure as an able-bodied driver. I think it’s an open book: there’s no real knowing where those complications might arise and sometimes you might just have to experience it.”
That statement feels like a metaphor for his recovery: “No real knowing” is a handicap in one sense, but if you never try then you won’t learn what’s possible. And Wickens intends to do everything in his power to find that out for himself.
After Pocono 2018, it’s what he’s done best.
Wickens now wants to test how far he can climb the motorsport ladder again
Photo by: Bryan Herta Autosport
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