Robert Wickens’ number one fan might have been the man whose team facilitated the Canadian’s return to driving on Tuesday at Mid-Ohio. Bryan Herta doesn’t want any of the credit for making the No. 54 Hyundai Veloster N TCR available to Wickens, and admits to being thankful for being there to witness Wickens’ competitive rebirth.
“Robert spent 989 days fighting to get here, and we’ve been there for one,” Herta told RACER. “A lot of my life has been lived at racetracks, and I’ve got to say, this has been one of the best. I can say I was there when he came back to where he belongs. I was there at Pocono for his last race. The emotion of that day, contrasted with the emotion of today, just made it very, very special.”
It was Bryan Herta Autosport’s Michael Johnson who offered the use of his 350hp Hyundai and its hand controls for Wickens’ 62-lap outing around the road course where he finished second at the NTT IndyCar Series race in 2018.
“We’re fortunate through our association with Michael Johnson that we had a hand-control car and could have afforded that opportunity,” Herta added. “There are not many hand-control race cars in the world, let alone in the U.S., so this was such just a natural thing for us. We are thrilled that Robert took up the offer from our team with Michael and Hyundai.”
As expected, the racing world kept the Bryan Herta Autosport team busy with constant requests for updates as Wickens got to grips with the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge series TCR machine.
“Crew guys around town in Indianapolis and everywhere were just reaching out asking, ‘How’s it going? How’s Robert doing?’” Herta said. “I don’t think there’s a person in the motorsports community wasn’t trying to follow him today, as it should be.”
Beyond the heartwarming moments on Tuesday, Herta – who knows a thing or two about driving talent after a long career in IndyCar and has a son who’s not so bad in his own right – saw something familiar inside the No. 54 Veloster N.
“Robert Wickens is a badass – he was a badass and he’s still a badass,” he said. “There was a lot of new, right? New car. Type of car with the front-wheel-drive and turbo engine. Never driven from hand controls; different way of driving the car. Then he started off on a wet track and, just a total pro, got on with the job and got onto the pace.
“I was surprised how quickly he got down to really respectable lap times. I’m not just saying like, ‘He did good times for using hand controls.’ He did good for anybody in a race car. It was impressive. I’m sure he’ll be a little more self-critical. But from what I saw, and what I was hoping to see, he blew it out of the water.”
The hardcore racer, sidelined for almost 1000 days, made an immediate return to form.
“What was so cool about it is that if nobody pointed it out, if you watched the interaction with Robert and the team and all our other drivers, and a feedback and the conversations they were having, they were normal race car conversations,” he said. “It wasn’t about ‘first day back since having this terrible accident’ type of conversations. They’re talking about where the grip was in the rain, what your breaking point is for this corner as the track is drying; and hey, what did you think of that setup change and tire pressures — it was all the normal stuff. I can only imagine, it just had to feel amazing for him. To feel like he was back doing what he belongs doing. It was all normal for him.”
Wickens took part in a press conference after his first laps in the car. Standing out of view, Herta observed Wickens’ earnest interactions with the media and found himself in awe of the person and the athlete.
“The thing that really kind of hit me standing there listening was when he talked about the mental health aspect. He said the physical stuff is hard. It’s hard work. It’s a grind,” he said. “But people don’t talk about or explain the mental toll that it takes and that side of things in you. But to hear him describe it, that was the thing that made me happiest.
“This has got to be good for good for his mental health. It’s got to be good for his soul. To confirm you can still do this, and still at the highest level. It’s one thing to have this goal and work for 989 days to get back in a race car. But then that day comes, and it feels normal? How great is that?”