Robert Wickens knew the day would come when he’d once again hoist a trophy, and he was determined to make it happen. He knew he would get back in a race car — an opportunity afforded by Bryan Herta Autosport and Hyundai last year — and began the 2022 season at Daytona International Speedway in the No. 33 Hyundai Elantra TCR with Mark Wilkins, earning a podium in his first IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge Race.
The Canadian duo won the TCR class Tioga Downs Casino Resort 120 on Saturday afternoon, bringing home their first victory together for Bryan Herta Autosport. It was an emotional victory, given Wickens’ fight back from his paralyzing accident in an IndyCar at Pocono in 2018. Despite the struggles he encountered to get back and now driving with hand controls, Wickens never had any doubts he would win.
“When Bryan Herta and the other people at Bryan Herta Autosport gave me this opportunity to race it was because we knew deep down, we could get there to win races and compete for race wins,” said Wickens. “Internally, I wanted to hit the ground running. I wanted to win Daytona; I want to qualify on pole, fast lap, do the whole thing, right? That wasn’t reality and then from there we kept just getting put down when we were in good [positions] to score good points, whether it was just the top five that one day, or a podium, or whatever the case might be. So we just kept honest with ourselves and kept working internally to make sure that we’re getting the best out of our package… I’ll be honest, I was hoping it would have come earlier but, you know, five races in is good.”
Wickens handed over to Wilkins in the lead, then Wilkins, who had to miss the most recent Mid-Ohio round due to a family emergency, had to fend off a hard charge from Tim Lewis in the KMW Motorsports Alfa Romeo.
“Robert did a great job,” Wilkins said. “He qualified really well with a lot of adversity. The lap…was amazing, and then in the race he just did an awesome job. We got the car up front, which is what we need. He got a bit of a gap, pitted — we had a great stop. We’ve been working hard on that. After missing a race at Mid-Ohio, to come back for a win is a lot. It was a tough month of May, so this one’s pretty special and [I’m] just really happy for Robert. You know, this is where we should be, and hopefully this is the start of our trend of lots of podiums and race wins for the balance of the season.”
The last few minutes were admittedly nervous for Wickens.
“It was a little nerve-wracking because on Peacock, it’s not like live-live, right? And so I could hear the IMSA radio people going off about something and I’m looking down and I couldn’t see it on the stream for a while. Because of the chair I can’t get to the timing monitors that the engineers can see. I’m just kind of living in the past a little bit, but it was just great and really, start to finish, this was by far, I think, our most complete race that we’ve done…”
The win wasn’t just emotional for Wickens and friends and family. It wasn’t just a special moment for the Bryan Herta Autosport Team — the joy at the victory rippled through the paddock.
“There were a couple more hugs than I think there would have been normally, but it was great,” he said. “I never think I’m an inspirational person. I come here to just drive. I’m just trying to get back to what I love to do, and Bryan Herta Autosport and Hyundai are giving me that opportunity. It’s reassuring for myself that I can still win and compete and challenge, even though I’m driving with hand controls. It’s really just hopefully the beginning of what’s going to come.”