It’s been a year and a half since Robert Wickens drove an IndyCar, but that’s all going to change on Saturday – relatively speaking.
Thanks to Gary Bettenhausen’s twin sons (Cary and Todd), Jim Leo of Pit Fit, Max Papis, Steve Fusek and SimXperience, Wickens will be competing in the American Red Cross Grand Prix at Watkins Glen — opening round of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge — along with Will Power, Josef Newgarden, Alex Rossi, Tony Kanaan, Graham Rahal, Sebastian Bourdais, Santino Ferrucci, Sage Karam and Felix Rosenqvist.
The 31-year-old Canadian, who was paralyzed from the waist down in the Pocono 500 during his impressive rookie season in 2018, has been inspiring everyone with his steady progress that has included him walking short distances, lifting weights and doing push-ups at PitFit and recorded on Facebook. Wickens is a daily mainstay at Leo’s popular workout facility in Indianapolis, along with several IndyCar drivers.
And with the pandemic postponing the start of the IndyCar season at least two more months, Wickens decided he’d like to try racing against his pals again on a simulator. But his original plan didn’t work out and then two of iRacing’s biggest proponents got involved.
Cary and Todd Bettenhausen — both born with vision problems so they never had a chance to follow their famous father’s footsteps — have been directly involved in iRacing for 13 years. Todd lives in Ohio and designs simulator hardware for SimXperience while Cary operates Indy Simulation at PitFit, which is rented to the general public as well as a favorite of the IndyCar vets at PitFit.
“I got a call a couple days ago from Robert and he said he’d be interested in driving our simulator,” said Cary. “So I got my brother on the line and we’ve been thrashing to get things ready and received a lot of help to make this thing happen.”
The immediate challenge was converting the iRacing rig from foot to hand controls. Todd B. hustled some hardware over from Ohio while ex-IndyCar racer Papis is providing a steering wheel from his business and Fusek, who is Takuma Sato’s agent and proprietor of Indy’s only downtown hardware store, loaned the motor to power the steering wheel.
“It’s cool how everyone is chipping in to help but it’s not surprising because Robby is such a great guy and this is going to be fun for him,” said Todd B. “I don’t think he has as much experience on a simulator as some of the guys but the race is going to be a fixed setup for everyone, so it will be more like an IROC race, where all the cars have similar performance potential.
Cary added, “It’s going to be a bit different for Robert since he won’t be able to feel the back end step out, because we’ve turned motion off to be careful with his healing. So he’ll have to drive with his eyes but he’ll be OK.”
The race begins at 4 p.m. and will be streamed live on IndyCar.com and NBC announcers Leigh Diffey, Paul Tracy and Townsend Bell will call the action.