Robert Wickens’ parade laps ahead of tomorrow’s Honda Indy Toronto will be a reward for his exhaustive work in rehab over the past 10 months, a chance to salute the fans and supporters that have backed him during his recovery – and if he, Honda and Arrow have their way, a step toward his driving an Indy car again.
The Canadian’s relationship with IndyCar has been short, but intense: he became an instant fan favorite with his swashbuckling debut appearance at St. Petersburg in 2018, and then broke the collective hearts of the paddock and fans when he suffered his accident at Pocono that August. In the months since, he’s taken a rehabilitation and recovery process that many professional athletes in similar situations might choose to endure far from the public eye, and instead provided constant windows into his progress through an active social media presence. Each of his personal victories – shifting himself out of his wheelchair unassisted; standing up for the first time – are shared and celebrated by thousands; rallying the community ever more strongly behind his fight.
And this superficially mundane act at on Sunday – essentially, a guy driving a car – will be one of his biggest wins yet. Wickens shook the hand-controlled Acura NSX down for the first time last week at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, and said that the feeling of leaning on an engine again was something special.
“I think the most liberating part was as soon as I got into the car, I got strapped in and pushed the ring throttle for the first time, and the car started creeping away, and then I just like went full throttle just to kind of see what it would do,” he said.
“Honestly, the car is so good that that was kind of a moment where I’m like, ‘Yeah, I miss that,’ and that was one of those situations… the thing is, once you’ve driven an IndyCar in anger for a while, it’s hard to get excited by a road car.
“But it works. It did it. It was one of those moments where I actually stayed full throttle for a while, and then I kind of just coasted to just take it all in and experience it all. That Arrow could allow me to accelerate a car without using my legs was something pretty special.”
This sort of thing is Arrow’s wheelhouse. A long-time partner (and now title sponsor) to Wickens’ Schmidt Peterson Motorsport team, it came into the hand-controlled Acura project having already spent several years refining a head-controlled Corvette for quadriplegic team owner Sam Schmidt. But this isn’t just technical showboating: in the cases of both the Corvette and the Acura, Arrow is looking to demonstrate technology that it believes could have broader applications. For the broader world, that means improving mobility options for people in similar situations to Wickens. For Wickens and everybody involved in his parade laps, the more immediate goal looks a lot like a Dallara.
“What we try to do at Arrow is not come up with this complex technology that’s not going to be suitable,” says Arrow Chairman, President and CEO Mike Long. “We’re showing off this technology because this technology could be for anybody in the world with Robbie’s problem to get back on the road with a car and drive their own way. That’s really what drives us is trying to do good. We will continue to develop this all the way back to the IndyCar for Robert, whatever he may need, and there will be certain pressures that I’m sure will be put on IndyCar to allow it to happen.
“It’s no different than golf or other sports where you’ve seen people with certain handicaps being able to compete with people that don’t have them, and we think this is nothing different. So I’m totally convinced we can put Robert back in a car. It will be possible for him to drive, and we won’t stop until he gets there.”
Indeed, Wickens explains that elements of the Acura’s control layout have been designed with an IndyCar in mind.
“With the way the ring throttle operates, you operate it with the thumb and you push it into the steering wheel,” he says. “Once I got out there on track [at CTMP], there was a lot of problem-solving going on that I’m still trying to figure out, because it’s definitely not second nature, by any means.
“But originally in my head when I’ve been thinking about this for hours and hours at night while I was in rehab; I figured out how to throttle on the one side, brake on another side, and it was very important to me that my hands can’t leave the steering wheel in order to drive an Indy car, and without having power steering in this championship.
“So I was always thinking I’d have brake on one side, throttle on the other, and once I got on track, I quickly realized that I need to be able to access throttle with both hands and access brake with both hands, because if you’re turning right into a corner – and especially in the tight cockpit of an Indy car – your bottom hand is pretty handcuffed. You don’t have that much availability to grab throttle or grab brake if you need to, so you have to use the hand on the top. So I was constantly switching between left and right hand when I was driving around.”
The dual throttle/brake setup will also offer some performance advantages by allowing Wickens to simulate left-foot braking.
“In this car… it’s just Phase 1 of the program; we have a handbrake on the right-hand side, so I was flip-flopping between which hand I was using for throttle, and then always using the brake down on the right-hand side,” Wickens says. “I always wanted to use throttle with the left. I wanted to minimize the coasting time before I hit the brakes, which is why people left-foot brake in IndyCar – to save that little bit of time before braking – and I was trying to get the same theory accomplished.”
The next big date on Wickens’ horizon is his wedding, after which the work to get him back into an IndyCar will continue in earnest.
“I think the target after the wedding is to hopefully have a trial basis steering wheel setup so I can get on the Honda IndyCar simulator and get to work,” he says.
In the meantime, this weekend represents the latest huge milestone in what will continue to be a prolonged rehabilitation process: Wickens driving a car on a race weekend. Out lap, once past the pits, and then back in. At least, that’s what he’s been told to do.
“I’m trying to figure out what that penalty would be if I just kept going…” he grins.