Nearly 1000 days removed from his last outing in a race car, Robert Wickens turned another corner in his rehabilitation process on Tuesday when he took part in an all-Hyundai track day at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car course.
The 32-year-old Canadian sampled a Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai Veloster N TCR at the site of the May 14-16 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship event, making good use of the No. 54 car raced by Michael Johnson.
“Once I was taken out of my medically-induced coma, ‘When can I race again?’ was definitely on my short list of questions,” Wickens said. “I started in go-karts when I was seven and my family sacrificed so much for me… everyone put so much effort into me and my career, that you can’t just let it get taken away that easily. There were a lot of personal milestones, and I believe these are the defining moments in my life.
“At 32, I have so much more of my life to live and I intend to live it to its fullest. That is what really drove me in my rehab phase, which is still happening every day. I just knew that if I didn’t go all in on my recovery, I’d be kicking myself for the rest of my life wondering, ‘What if I’d tried harder? What if I didn’t do this? Or did do that?’ This injury has been just a setback, not necessarily a career-ender.”
Outfitted with hand controls, Wickens adapted to the demands of the 350hp front-wheel-drive four-cylinder turbo Hyundai made available by BHA and Johnson, the race-winning paraplegic driver from Michigan.
Inside the No. 54 Universal Coating Veloster, Wickens built speed while interacting with the complex steering wheel which features two large rings to control the brake and throttle; acceleration comes from pushing down on the front ring and braking is activated by pulling on the ring behind the wheel. Separate buttons on the wheel handle upshifting and downshifting,
“I’m appreciative of the opportunity Hyundai and Bryan Herta have provided, and a big thanks to Michael Johnson for this collaboration,” he said. “It’s been a journey getting here and the experience on track today was incredibly rewarding. Working with the team, dialing the car in, gaining speed and improving the handling – it was awesome. The Veloster N TCR was a blast to drive. Once I got comfortable with the car, I began to understand what I need for my own accessibility to move forward.”
The majority of Wickens’ career has been spent in open-wheel cars, but he’s no stranger to tin-tops, having been signed to the Mercedes-AMG DTM factory team where he won six races and earned two top-five championship finishes from 2012-2017. Wickens also made an IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship start at the Rolex 24 At Daytona in 2017 with Starworks Motorsport in the LMPC class before returning to North America in 2018 and embarking upon his rookie season in the NTT IndyCar Series.
Earning Rookie of the Year honors at the Indianapolis 500, Wickens was an instant title contender with the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team prior to the August crash at Pocono that damaged his spinal cord and extremities. Since the accident, Wickens has become an inspirational figure as his efforts to overcome the spinal injury and restore the full function of his legs have been shared with the world through social media.
“We’re fortunate to be in a position to provide Robert a chance to get back in a race car,” Herta said. “We knew with his expertise and ability; we’d benefit from his valuable feedback. He did a great job getting up to speed quickly, and we look forward to being a part of the next phase in his journey back to racing.”