Monday of this week found Robert Wickens excitedly anticipating his first opportunity to drive a race car in nearly three seasons: 988 days, to be exact.
But on Tuesday the Canadian was all business, just as he has been since becoming a professional race driver more than a decade ago; since before his promising rookie IndyCar season ended in a crash on August 19, 2018 that resulted in a multitude of fractured bones and a bruised spine that left whether he would ever walk again, let alone drive a race car, in doubt.
Thanks to Bryan Herta Autosport and Hyundai, Robert Wickens had the chance to report for work at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, ready to acclimate himself to the BHA Hyundai Veloster N raced by Michael Johnson in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge. Make that the BHA Hyundai Veloster N equipped with hand-controlled brakes, throttle and clutch raced by Michael Johnson in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge.
A former national motorcycle champion who suffered paralyzing injuries in a crash, Johnson subsequently turned to sports car racing, recording an historic IMSA win in 2018 and, after joining BHA this season, finishing third (with co-driver Stephen Simpson) at Daytona in the specially-equipped Hyundai.
“The whole week leading up to this, it wasn’t so much nerves but excitement and anticipation,” says Wickens, who has regained limited use of his legs thanks to more than two years of physical rehabilitation. “But once I put a (drivers) suit on again, putting in the ear pieces, the balaclava, the helmet… it just all went out the window and it was business as usual.
“Once I got back out on track, it was a slightly different story. Obviously the hand controls that Michael uses and the Hyundai Veloster is brand new (to me). So learning that on a wet track wasn’t without its difficulties.”
Indeed, apart from the fact that Wickens had never driven the Hyundai Veloster before, let alone controlled the throttle, brakes and clutch with his hands – all the while steering and shifting gears with those same hands – was no small challenge. Just ask the team’s resident expert on driving with hand controls.
“I’m very busy, for sure,” Johnson smiles. “On the back side of the steering wheel there’s a ring that I pull with my fingers to activate the brake. On the front side of the steering wheel is another ring that I use to activate the throttle with my thumbs. The top corners on both sides of the steering wheel are the gear shifters – upshift on the right, downshift on the left. So my hands are moving a lot, but I’m used to it. That’s going to be a big thing for Robert to get used to: How all the controls work. How to synchronize everything.”
As if all that wasn’t enough, Tuesday dawned damp and gray, and stayed that way, leaving Wickens to come to grips with an unfamiliar car using hand controls in constantly changing conditions. Although Johnson was on hand to offer advice and insights, Simpson (who drives using the car’s brake, throttle and clutch pedals) ran a few laps to bed new brake pads and establish a baseline sensitivity for the Veloster’s brake controls.
Then it was time for Wickens to take over and, after an understandably tentative out lap, his hands were hard on the throttle past the pits the first time. With each lap, Wickens seemed to carry a little more speed out of the Carousel onto the pit straight and to go a bit deeper into Turn 1. After a dozen laps he pulled into the pits, drove into the garage and got out of the car.
“The car’s still in one piece,” he smiles. “But it felt good. There’s a lot going on: first time with hand controls, first time with this car, and on a damp track. It gave me a much greater appreciation for what Michael Johnson has been able to achieve.
“So I tried not to be a hero, hard as that was! But it felt good to be back in a race car.”
Although there was no shortage of people who doubted he would ever be back in a race car, Wickens was not among them. Upon his release from the hospital more than a month after his accident, Wickens attacked his physical rehabilitation with a singular focus.
“I never turned down a gym session,” he recalls. “I was working out five to six hours a day, six days a week and luckily I had amazing support from my partner at the time, and now wife, Carly. She let me be selfish; she let me focus primarily on my recovery because she knew how important it was for me.
“I also was very fortunate to be allowed into one of the best spinal cord recovery centers in the world at Craig Hospital in Denver. I understood how fortunate I was to have that opportunity to be with the best therapists, and I tried to use it the best I could. I just knew if I didn’t give it absolutely everything – more than everything – I would always question if I would have had a different outcome.”
Back to Mid-Ohio where, after another dozen laps or so, the BHA team broke for lunch with Wickens heading to the press room for a succession of Zoom interviews with an assortment of print and electronic journalists across North America. Perhaps the second most popular question (after the obligatory “What’s it like out there Robert?”) was what comes next in the Wickens saga.
“At the moment there’s no real prospects,” he says. “Just a great opportunity that Bryan Herta and Hyundai were able to present me with this track day. I jumped on the opportunity. I’ve wanted to drive a race car for a long time now, and to finally tick that box is massive in my recovery and my journey back. Who knows what the future will bring? I don’t want to get ahead of myself, I just enjoy today for what it is.”
After another rain shower soaked the track, Wickens – who maintains he enjoys racing in the rain – went out for another pair of 10-lap runs. Standing on the hillside outside Turn 1 – the quickest on the 2.4 mile circuit – it appeared to the naked eye that Wickens was as smooth, if not smoother, than any of the other half dozen Hyundai drivers to venture out in the wet session, consistently arcing around the outside “rain” line and carrying enough speed that he regularly upshifted before the others on the climb to the Keyhole.
“This is going very, very well,” smiles Herta back in the pits. “Robert is really on it. But I’m not surprised. He’s a racer.
“He’s also providing great feedback on the hand controls. We’ve done our best to make the car work for Michael. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some aspects of the controls are not really optimal for Michael; that he’s learned to adapt to them. Robert’s input may help us make things even better for Michael.”
If Herta was delighted, Wickens’ wide grin at day’s end suggested he had company.
“Returning to racing was never not an option,” Wickens says. “Obviously I’m a long ways away from returning to a race car at an elite level, full-time. That’s still ultimately my goal. I feel like I still have a lot of great years left. I don’t think this injury needs to define me. It’s just another chapter in the book of Robert Wickens. There’s still a lot of story left and still a lot of great things to achieve.”
If Monday found Robert Wickens excitedly anticipating his track day and Tuesday found him all business, it’s a safe bet today finds him more confident than ever that there are many more days in a race car in his future.