It’s closing in on three years since Robert Wickens was last behind the wheel of a competitive race car.
On Aug. 19, 2018, Wickens’ Indy car was involved in a crash at Pocono Raceway that left the up-and-coming IndyCar star with a thoracic spinal fracture, a fractured neck, tibia and fibula fractures to both legs, fractures in both hands, a fractured right forearm, fractured elbow, a concussion, and four fractured ribs.
Wickens also suffered a bruised spinal cord that made it doubtful he would walk again.
On Tuesday, Wickens took a positive step in his recovery from those injuries when he got behind the wheel of a specially prepared Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai Veloster N TCR as part of a track day at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio. It was the same car used in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge by paralyzed racer Michael Johnson.
“It’s been just a blast,” Wickens said after getting out of the car on Tuesday. “I honestly can’t thank Bryan Herta Autosport, Hyundai, and Michael Johnson enough. It’s not everyday that someone can lend you a race car to go take an item off your bucket list.”
Wickens said that he put the car though its paces for about 25 laps in the first half of the day on first wet, and then drying conditions. Neither the conditions—nor the car—mattered much on this day, however.
Wickens was back. That’s all that mattered.
“There was a lot of emotions, once I was able to put my visor down and get back on a race track again,” he said. “The whole week up leading to this, it wasn’t so much nerves, but excitement and anticipation. Once I put a suit on again, and started putting on the earpieces, the baklava, the helmet, it just went all out the window, and it was business as usual. Once I got back on track, it was a slightly different story.”
Getting used to the hand controls—there’s a ring on the front of the steering wheel that the driver pushes for throttle, and there’s another ring on the back side of the steering wheel that is pulled to activate the braking system—was a challenge. That learning curve was nothing compared to the challenges that Wickens has faced over the past 20 months.
“There’s been many tough times,” Wickens, 32, said. “I think something—something that a lot of people try not to talk about—the mental health aspect of a recovery like this is extremely daunting. That’s been really one on of the biggest struggles. I think a lot of people can put in the manual work and then to try get better and get stronger, but to do it day in and day out and keep a positive outlook, it’s extremely tough.
“Then there’s the whole different world of emotions. You come through different phases of your recovery. The mental aspect, hands down, has been the hardest thing in his recovery.”
Wickens says that he’s still striving to get back in a competitive race car and compete at a high level. Nothing is in the pipeline right now as far as offers or timelines.
“I think the biggest thing for me, the hardest thing of my injury, was that I felt that I was just hitting the peak of my career and my abilities when this happened,” Wickens said. “We’re creeping up on three years now since the accident, and I feel like I’m not utilizing those prime years of my career. I would love nothing more than to get back on an elite level. Selfishly, I would love to get back to IndyCar to close that chapter of my life on my own terms.”
A return to IndyCar, Wickens admits, might be a long shot.
“I would love nothing more than, ideally to win an IndyCar race and then maybe move on.” he said. “Right now, there’s so much to figure out. At the early stages of my recovery, I really wanted to return to IndyCar. I’m not saying I don’t now, but understanding what goes into accessibility, I think making an Indy car competitive with hand controls, would be a massive undertaking—one that maybe with the current IndyCar regulations, would not be entirely feasible.
“But never say never. There’s a lot great teams, and I honestly think crazier things have happened in the past. But for the time being, I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing, focusing on my rehab and hopefully in due time, the right opportunity will come.”
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Wickens talked not only of IndyCar, but even Formula E as a possible landing place to return to racing one day. And working with Hyundai and Michael Johnson opened Wickens’ eyes to the possibility of sports cars one day.
“Long-term goals for me haven’t changed,” he said. “I want to return to an elite level of motorsport again. It’s been that really since day zero of my recovery, and we’re still chipping away. This is a massive step in by journey back, but that’s really all that is today.
“I’m going to keep doing what I can, keep working hard, and I believe that that hard work always pays off. I believe I deserve to still race at a high level, at the elite level, and hopefully that can come true sometime soon.”
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