Michael Johnson and Robert Wickens have both risen above life-changing challenges to get back to doing what they both love most: racing.
In episode seven of “Hyundai presents Next Level: Back in the Driver’s seat,” we take a journey with two remarkable individuals and witness the drive and determination, and the incredible technical solutions, that put them back on the fast track.
Their respective paths have brought them together at Bryan Herta Autosport for the 2022 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge season. Johnson drives the No 54 Hyundai Elantra N TCR alongside Stephen Simpson, while Wickens shares the No. 33 Elantra N TCR with Mark Wilkins. Collectively, they’ve earned five podiums this season, including a pair of wins for Wickens and Wilkins at Watkins Glen and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.
While their disabilities can’t be overlooked, both drivers now race with a ground-breaking system of steering wheel-mounted hand controls developed and constantly refined by BHA’s engineering team, and both are simply focused on doing what it takes to be competitive and score results in the Michelin Pilot Challenge’s ultra-close TCR class.
“Once the helmet goes on and the door is closed and it’s just you and the car, it’s where I love to be,” says Wickens, who suffered spinal cord injuries and paralysis in an IndyCar Series crash at Pocono 2018. “I didn’t realize how much I missed that feeling until being on the grid at Daytona right before the start [of my first race back].”
It comes as no surprise that Johnson says he feels like behind the wheel is where he finds his true self. Being competitors is truly what defines each of them and their disability is just a problem to solve.
“Life shouldn’t stop when you have a traumatic injury or a set-back,” says Johnson, who was paralyzed in a motorcycle dirt-track racing accident at the age of 12. “Even though I’m using hand controls, I feel like I’m just as capable as anyone out on the race track.”
Their respective car setups do have to take into account particular adaptations for their individual needs. Johnson, for example, has minimal feeling through the seat, so he relies more on feedback through the steering wheel. As a result, he prefers a car with a bit more understeer to help him find the limit. Wickens likes to trail-brake to get the car to rotate from entry to mid-corner, so he and the BHA team have dedicated a lot of time to get the feel of the brakes just right through the hand control on the steering wheel.
Beyond these nuances, as well as some logistical considerations that must be part and parcel of being wheelchair-bound, a race weekend for Johnson and Wickens isn’t too different from a race weekend for any other driver, including how they work with their co-drivers and the BHA team.
“Stephen and I have developed a great working relationship,” says Johnson of his co-driver, Simpson. “When it comes to the car setup, he knows what I like and I trust him to get it dialed in so that it’s what we need it to be. Once I’m on track, I’m just focused on the job at hand: getting a good start, making up positions if need be, and keeping it all clean to hand the car over to Stephen with good track position.”
At the track – and oftentimes away from it, too – Wickens is focused on improvement, analyzing performance, and thinking about how to extract every ounce of potential from himself, the car and his team.
“I like keeping people accountable. I strongly believe in a no-blame culture, and what I’ve learned from my past experience is that we can’t pretend that things don’t happen,” he says. “So, it’s important for all of us to identify and understand what any issues might be. Every Tuesday or Wednesday after a race, I try to get on the phone with Mark and my engineer, John Ward, to talk through our weekend and learn how we can do better.”
Since the race weekend at Mid-Ohio in May, Wickens feels like the focus shifted from the practical aspects of driving a racecar with hand controls, to getting back to having that focus be on lap times and extracting maximum performance.
For those of us looking in from the outside, how Johnson and Wickens deal with their daily challenges is impressive and inspiring. Taken from their perspective, they are simply racecar drivers doing racecar driver things. So, step aside; they have a job to do.