How 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’ world changed forever on the first racing lap of the 500-mile event at Pocono, the brutal crash leading to a truly awful injury list: 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.
Wickens celebrates victory at Mosport alongside co-driver Wilkins
Photo by: Bryan Herta Autosport
“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.” 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. 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.
“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.
“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.
Wickens has spent four years recovering and adapting to his life-changing accident at Pocono
Photo by: Bryan Herta Autosport
“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.”
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 pitwall.
“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 the elite level since 2011.”
His journey to get back behind the wheel began at Christmas 2020, when Herta, “Just called me up out of the blue. 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’.”
From there, Wickens tested Michael Johnson’s Hyundai Veloster in May 2021, fitted with hand controls (Johnson was paralysed as a youngster in a motorbike racing crash). Suffice to say, it went well: “It was a wet day, miserable and cold. No glamour! 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 track day at Mid-Ohio got them equal publicity than they’d got for the rest of the season.”
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?
“First corner was like riding a bike!” he says. “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. Since a podium at Daytona, poor fortune – including contact with rivals – had plagued them until Watkins Glen, where everything came together for victory.
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
“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 – 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!
“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 Mark close out the win was an amazing experience.”
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
“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. I’m chairbound until there’s a real medical breakthrough in the science field.”
So where does he go from here?
Now he feels he’s reestablished himself with the BHA Hyundai 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.
“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 fulfilment of racing for a pro team against pro drivers.
“My goal within America would be to get back to IndyCar again or race an LMDh [in IMSA], 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. 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.
“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 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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