Robert Wickens was a welcome sight in the NTT IndyCar Series paddock in St. Petersburg, six months on from the terrible crash at Pocono that ended his spectacular rookie season and left him with spinal injuries. Although the Canadian admitted his road to recovery remains long and challenging, his characteristic determination — and sense of humor — clearly remain undaunted.
“First off, good to see everybody here. It’s nice to be back in a world that I’m familiar with,” Wickens told the media at a press conference after spending the first practice session on Friday pit-side with his Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team. “I’m doing well. Really I am. There’s obviously good days and bad days. Being back at a racetrack makes everything feel a whole lot better, although it’s a little bit strange to be on the far side of the pit wall.
“When you’re driving, you know the engineers are talking and figuring out how to make the car better. When you actually listen on a race weekend of the communication that goes on, it’s intense. I thought I’ll put a headset on, chime in, give some insight every now and then. I struggled to find my space to make my blurb. It’s all a work in progress.”
The same could be said about his path to recovery, Wickens related.
“From my front, I’m getting some stuff back, getting better each day. A long road. You feel like you’re on that road trip — it’s the 100-mile road that’s a straight line the entire time without any scenery, and you’re just working as hard as you can to get to the end.
“We’re getting there, one step at a time. It’s basically all I can say — we’re making progress. The thing with a spinal injury is you never know when that day comes where you won’t progress any more. I think right now we’re trying to utilize every day we can to get as healthy as I can.”
Wickens said he continues to be buoyed by the support and well wishes he’s received from IndyCar’s extended family, and the sport’s fans.
“It’s been amazing. I was expecting a lot of support, but it’s already kind of gone way out of what I expected it would be,” he said. “I mean, heading to the pit lane for the first session, I thought the fans would kind of be more focused on the race cars, like I would have been when I was a fan attending a race. All they seemed to care about was me. Everyone was cheering my name. It’s really cool to see team personnel from other teams just saying it’s great to see me. People [I’ve] never even seen before. Competitor team uniforms, all being really supportive. It goes to show how great the IndyCar community is, how close it is — but then the fans are just fantastic, as well. Everyone is just giving me such an outpouring of support. It’s been fantastic.
“It’s been a motivation piece for me. On those days where I’m just not having the best day in rehab, you feel like you don’t really want to put in the final three hours of your day — but then you just think about the long-term goal of me trying to get back into an Indy car. It’s pretty easy to find that motivation again.”
One of the strongest sources of support Wickens has drawn on is from his team owner Sam Schmidt, a paraplegic himself as the result of an racing accident. Wickens says his advice was key to getting his recuperation program going.
“Sam’s been super helpful throughout the whole thing. I mean, just the fact when the injury happened, he already basically knew the good doctors, the good surgeons. Before I would get to the hospital that I was going to, he already had vetted it for me.
“At the time I wasn’t in a space to recognize. But he was always making sure I would get the best care possible. Nothing dodgy, but everything legally. He just knew so much because of his injury, because of his research and everything he’s done with his paralysis. He’s been to so many rehabilitation hospitals that when that became a reality for me, he knew the ins and outs of every hospital, every rehab facility we were looking at.
“In the end, we came to the conclusion of where we wanted to go. It was kind of a full team decision. It wasn’t just me trusting a doctor that recommended it. I felt like we really made the right choice in the places that we went. Then, moving forward, he has his place in Las Vegas, a facility, which has opened. That could be a very viable option for me once rehab finishes and I still need a place to keep conditioning.
“It’s hard to put in words really what he’s done. I think he did a lot that I still don’t realize, because I was in a state that I wasn’t able to realize what he was doing.”