Why Robert Wickens should be your favorite driver

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LAT Images/Katie Brannan

We last left IndyCar driver Robert Wickens on a rainy Tuesday afternoon last May at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, a race track in the northern part of the state that Hyundai and Bryan Herta Autosport had rented out for the day.

The headline pretty much told the story: “Paralyzed in 2018, Robert Wickens has Grit, Heart, and Unfinished Business in Motorsports.” For the first time since a devastating crash into the fence on lap seven of an IndyCar race at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania on August 19, 2018, Wickens, paralyzed from the waist down, would climb into a race car and see if there was a chance he could do it again. To address that unfinished business.

That May 4 test last year was courtesy of Bryan Herta, a winning IndyCar driver himself and co-owner of an Indianapolis 500 winning team, who now has a fleet of Hyundai race cars that compete in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge Series, essentially the opening act for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, the series that races in the biggest sports car race in the U.S., the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Robert Wickens Hyundai Veloster N TCR chair
LAT Images/Katie Brannan

One of Herta’s drivers is Michael Johnson, who was paralyzed racing motorcycles when he was 12 years old. Now 29, Johnson has long been racing cars using hand controls, switching to sports cars in 2016. Johnson and co-driver Stephen Simpson, who is able-bodied, volunteered the use of their Hyundai Veloster N TCR car to see if Wickens could drive it.

He could, and he did. It was a triumphant day, but both Herta and Wickens, now 32, stressed that it was just a one-off test, that there were no plans to put Wickens in a race car for actual competition.

Robert Wickens Hyundai Veloster N TCR side profile
LAT Images/Katie Brannan

But—well, Wickens was impressive. “His focus, determination, attention to detail, preparing for this test. Like the seat fitting. Every detail has to be perfect. The guy is a machine in his work ethic. I wouldn’t bet against him in anything he is trying to accomplish,” Herta said last May.

And from that day forward, Herta and Hyundai began looking for a way to make Robert Wickens a part of the team. Last week, they announced that beginning with the season-opening BMW M Endurance Challenge, a four-hour race at Daytona International Speedway on January 28, the day before the Rolex 24, Wickens will be competing in the entire 10-race season.

Wickens
LAT Images/Katie Brannan

To say it will be a challenge is an understatement. Wickens and his teammate, Mark Wilkins, a fellow Canadian, have never driven together before. In fact, throughout his long career in multiple series, Wickens has never had a co-driver. Wilkins is the senior driver in the Herta camp, a champion of considerable experience. Wickens is new to Daytona, new to the car—now a Hyundai Elantra N TCR—and most important, new to the complex set of hand controls he’ll be using.

The operating system is similar to Michael Johnson’s, but Johnson is paralyzed from the chest down and his needs are slightly different from what Wickens wants. Wickens will change gears with conventional paddle shifts, one on each side of the wheel. He’ll brake by pressing a large aluminum ring that encircles the wheel.

Wickens told Hagerty via a Zoom conference that Johnson’s system “wasn’t second nature to me,” and the biggest change they made was that Wickens will activate the throttle by pushing a switch that allows him to keep his thumb on the steering wheel. Otherwise, “it’s more or less the same” as Johnson’s.

Robert Wickens Hyundai Veloster N TCR wheel
LAT Images/Katie Brannan

Wilkins will drive using the same steering wheel—paralyzed racer Alex Zanardi tried a system that changed out his steering wheel for a conventional one during pit stops at Daytona a few years ago, but Wilkins and the Hyundai steering wheel designers see no need for that. Wilkins will just flip a switch when he’s in the car and that will deactivate the steering wheel-mounted controls and activate the conventional controls.

The problem is that this week, at a test prior to the Roar Before the 24 official test this weekend, is the first time Wickens has used the system, or even been in the Elantra. “It will be a steep learning curve,” he understates. Perhaps the biggest issue is that there is no progressive brake feel—the system uses a hydraulic actuator that takes a delicate touch to brake lightly. While he hasn’t been able to use the new wheel on a simulator, “I have a ton of iRacing experience” with that computer system, he says.

Wickens received a lot of publicity after the accident for the videos of his rehabilitation process after the crash, vowing to be able to dance at his wedding to his now-wife, Karli. And he did, with support, also standing for his vows.

Robert Wickens Hyundai Veloster N TCR
LAT Images/Katie Brannan

But Wickens now says that, “I’m at the point in my life know where my recovery has more or less plateaued, and I won’t be regaining any more muscle function, so unfortunately it looks like I’ll be in a wheelchair for the remainder of my life assuming modern medicine stays where it is. But I have a great life—I was able to regain a lot of function—I can stand and make a couple of steps with support. But as far as leaving the chair permanently, I don’t think that’s in my pipeline right now.”

He will continue in his role as driver coach and team consultant to the IndyCar team Arrow McLaren SP, but the IMSA Michelin Challenge series will be his priority.

Getting back on the horse “took a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication, but I wouldn’t be here without help from a lot of good people backing me,” Wickens said. “Bryan Herta is a racer, but as I’m learning more and more he’s just a standup guy and an awesome person.

Robert Wickens Hyundai Veloster N TCR rear
LAT Images/Katie Brannan

“So here we are, better late than never.”

And one step closer to taking care of that unfinished business.

Wickens takes to the track first on Friday with the Roar Before the Rolex 24, a three-day test session at Daytona that concludes with qualifying races. The BMW M Endurance Challenge streams live starting at 1:35 p.m. ET Friday, January 28 on Peacock.

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