By: Ashley McCubbin
For the first time since crashing into the fence at Pocono Raceway in 2018, Robert Wickens got the chance to get behind the wheel.
Thanks to an opportunity courtesy of Hyundai and Bryan Herta Autosport, the Canadian was able to drive a car normally piloted by Michael Johnson in IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge competition utilizing hand controls.
“I think the thing that surprised me the most was how mighty that Hyundai Veloster is,” he told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “Honestly, it’s a really fun car. And just to have the opportunity, I was really happy that I got a run in on slicks at the end, before I took my lunch break here to come up and speak to you friendly people. But yeah, it’s the fact that, you know, in the rain, it was very well balanced.
“Mid-Ohio Is not an easy track here in the wet. It’s very slippery, very low grip and no room for error anywhere. But it handled it well, you know, the brakes are strong, the cornering speed, everything. I was very blown away by actually how quick this car is. I’m not trying to discredit what it was, but, you know, I was very pleasantly surprised with how much of a real race car it is.”
Battling side-by-side on a Lap 7 restart, Wickens made contact with a fellow competitor, launching his No. 6 Arrow Schmidt SP Honda into the catch fence. The result was fractures to his legs, spine, and left forearm, as well as lower body paralysis.
Following multiple surgeries, along with a long rehabilitation process, Wickens has gained limited usage back of his legs to where he can move around utilizing walker.
“There’s been many, there’s been many tough times,” he spoke of his recovery process. “I mean, I think, something that a lot of people, try not to talk about, but the mental health aspect of a recovery like this is extremely daunting. That’s been really one of the biggest struggles. I think a lot of people can put in the manual work and then to try and get better and get stronger, but to do it day in and day out and keep a positive outlook, it’s extremely, extremely tough.
“And, you know, then there’s the whole different world of emotions that come through, you know, then you go through different phases of your recovery and it’s the mental aspect has been hands down the hardest thing of this recovery. And I’ve had a great support system.
“I have a lovely partner with my wife that has always had my back and has always been there for me. But then even from family, from friends, from colleagues, you know, I’m so fortunate to have such a great surrounding around me within the motorsports community that I really, I feel sometimes I don’t know how I got so lucky to have such a great support system around me.”
Now with the first laps behind the cockpit under his belt, Wickens is unsure whether the future will take him, whether that leads to running some SportsCar events or a different form of motorsports.
“I want to return to an elite level of motorsport again,” he commented. “It’s been really since day zero of my recovery and we’re still chipping away. This is a massive step in my journey back, but that’s really all that is here today. Unfortunately, there’s nothing really in the pipeline, because of that, but you know, I’m going to keep doing what I can keep working hard and I believe that hard work always pays off. And I believe I deserve to still race at a high level and at an elite level. And hopefully that can come true sometime soon.”
One of the elite levels in motorsports is the NTT IndyCar Series, ultimately where this journey began. Even after what happened, Wickens would want to get back behind the wheel, wanting to close that chapter on his own terms.
“You know, I think everyone can kind of relate, you know, if for whatever reasons, if something happens that you weren’t really planning, sometimes it leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” he explained. “I would love nothing more ideally, you know, to win an IndyCar race and then maybe move on. But, you know, I think right now, there’s so much to figure out. I mean, I think at the early stages of my recovery, I really wanted to return to IndyCar. I’m not saying I don’t now, but understanding what goes into accessibility.
“And I think making an IndyCar competitive with hand controls would be a massive undertaking. One that maybe with the current IndyCar regulations wouldn’t be entirely feasible. So, you know, but never say never. There’s a lot of great teams out there, and I honestly think crazier things have happened in the past, but for the time being, I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing, focusing on my rehab and hopefully, finally in due time, the right opportunity will come.”