Q and A: Wickens Hopes To Drive And Dance Again

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 9 2019
IndyCar driver Roberts Wickens, who was paralyzed as the result of a crash at Pocono, has big plans for his future. (File photo)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Five months after confirming that he is a paraplegic, Robert Wickens is working to realize his dream of returning to competition in the NTT IndyCar Series. But first, the native Canadian hopes to dance at his wedding.

“Even what I did before (his accident) was hard to call ‘dancing,’ ” Wickens joked during a news conference Friday in St. Petersburg, Fla., site of Sunday’s 2019 season-opening street race. “Even if I stand perfectly straight, I can wiggle my upper body a little bit. I don’t know, what defines ‘dancing?’ That’s the big thing. I mean, if we (he and fiancée Karli Woods) can just both stand there and awkwardly stare at each other for three minutes, I think that would be pretty good, as well.”

The couple is planning a September wedding. Last month, Wickens posted a photo pushing himself out of a chair and standing with the support of Woods.

Injured in a violent multiple-car crash on Aug. 19 at Pocono Raceway, Wickens confirmed in an Instagram post on Oct. 26 that he is paralyzed from the waist down. Wickens was injured during the ABC Supply 500 on the 2.5-mile “Tricky Triangle” in Long Pond, Pa. He underwent surgery for a spinal injury the following evening at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest in Allentown, Pa.

Wickens was a series rookie with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Team co-owner Sam Schmidt is paralyzed from the neck down after a crash at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Fla., on Jan. 6, 2000.

In addition to the paralysis, Wickens suffered a thoracic spinal fracture, a neck fracture, tibia and fibula fractures to both legs, fractures in both hands, a fractured right forearm, fractured elbow, four fractured ribs and a pulmonary contusion. After spending several weeks at the facility in Allentown, Wickens was transferred to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis where he began physical rehabilitation with the goals of walking and dancing and racing again.

Ironically, Wickens qualified on-pole for his first IndyCar Series start _ the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg street race _ on March 11, 2018. Wickens went on to earn Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year honors on May 27 after starting 18th and finishing ninth at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Despite missing the season’s final three races, Wickens was named IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year after logging four top-three finishes in 14 starts. Wickens finished 11th in the final driver standings with 391 points, tied with SPM teammate and fellow-Canadian James Hinchcliffe.

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will open the series’ 17-race schedule for the ninth straight season on a 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary circuit encompassing city streets and a runway of Albert Whitted Airport.

Wickens, who will turn 30 on Wednesday, updated his rehab progress during an interview in the track’s press conference room:

THE MODERATOR: The question on everyone’s minds, and I’m sure you’re going to be asked a hundred different ways while you are here, is how are you, how are you progressing, how do you feel?

ROBERT WICKENS: “First off, good to see everybody here. It’s nice to be back in a world that I’m familiar with. I’m doing well. Really I am. There’s obviously good days and bad days. Being back at a racetrack makes everything feel a whole lot better, although we just finished Practice One, it’s a little bit strange to be on the far side of the pit wall.

“No, it’s just crazy to think, when you’re driving, you know the engineers are talking and figuring out how to make the car better. When you actually listen on a race weekend of the communication that goes on, it’s intense. I thought I’ll put a headset on, chime in, give some insight every now and then. I struggled to find my space to make my blurb. It’s all a work in progress, work in progress.

“From my front, I’m getting some stuff back, getting better each day. A long road. You feel like you’re on that road trip, it’s the 100-mile road that’s a straight line the entire time without any scenery, and you’re just working as hard as you can to get to the end.

“We’re getting there. One step at a time. It’s basically all I can say, we’re making progress. The thing with a spinal injury is you never know when that day comes where you won’t progress any more. I think right now we’re trying to utilize every day we can to get as healthy as I can.”

THE MODERATOR: You’ve had an outpouring of support from fans as you’ve been rehabbing. At the same time it has to feel good to witness it in person at a track. What has that experience been like for you here?

ROBERT WICKENS: “It’s been amazing. I was expecting a lot of support, but it’s already kind of gone way out of what I expected it would be. I mean, heading to the pit lane for the first session, I thought the fans would kind of be more focused on the race cars, like I would have been when I was a fan attending a race.

“All they seemed to care about was kind of me. Everyone was cheering my name. It’s really cool to see team personnel from other teams just saying it’s great to see me. People, never even seen them before. Competitor team uniforms, all being really supportive. It goes to show how great the INDYCAR community is, how close it is, but then the fans are just fantastic, as well. Everyone is just giving me such an outpour of support. It’s been fantastic.

“It’s been a motivation piece for me. On those days where I’m just not having the best day in rehab, you feel like you don’t really want to put in the final three hours of your day, but then you just think about the long-term goal of me trying to get back into an Indy car. It’s pretty easy to find that motivation again.”

QUESTION: You’ve shown remarkable determination to try to overcome this. Have doctors been able to say that’s really made it important in the amount of progress you’ve been able to make?

ROBERT WICKENS: “Honestly, the spinal cord injury, every single person is different. I’m working my butt off doing everything I can because my whole philosophy in life is the harder you work, the better results you’ll get. Make sure you’re the hardest working guy out there and you won’t be beat. That’s been my philosophy from Day One of my entire life, how my parents brought me up. That’s my approach today.

“I don’t know if it’s right or wrong. There could be a person beside me with the same spinal cord injury eating fast food and sitting in their hospital bed all day, and they might walk sooner than me. I think all we can say, the doctors know I’m working too hard, they’re telling me to rest. On the same token, they’re kind of telling me to keep doing what I’m doing because it’s working. It’s kind of that fine balance of I am doing four to six hours a day six days a week. It’s tough. I enjoy my day off on Sunday.

“Besides that, I mean, there’s no real reason I’m getting the results I’m getting, or if I did more or less it would change the results. No one really knows.”

QUESTION: Do you feel this last two-month period has been a big step?

ROBERT WICKENS: “I think they’ve been more, like, sexy steps. Getting the first muscle flick back in October, whenever that was, was huge, right? But it’s just a little muscle flick. You don’t really notice anything. Then as I was getting a little better, now that I’m getting up on my feet, I think it’s putting into perspective, ‘Oh, my God, he’s standing,’ then taking steps, kind of getting better.

“The big thing for me is right now they always told me kind of the six-to-nine months or the six-to-12 month frame is where you’ll see the most progression. I’m kind of right at the beginning of that. Hopefully I didn’t peak too soon. Hopefully I’m still in that prime spot. We’re just a little bit over six months post-injury. I am getting a lot of improvement from week-to-week. I don’t think it’s really been escalating. I think it’s been pretty linear. I’ll take the linear progression over one that kind of plateaus and goes up quickly then plateaus again.

“Every week we’re making small improvements. Karli and I are documenting everything I can do at the start of each month. It’s been remarkable to read back to see what I was doing February 1st to March 1st, January 1st. Every month it’s a pretty consistent chunk of new things.”

QUESTION: Is it still in your mind one day you’d like to race again? And why?

ROBERT WICKENS: “Yeah, 100 percent. The goal is to get back into an Indy car. We won’t know till I try it to see if it’s a reality. Apart from that, I mean, there’s been so many remarkable drivers that have succeeded with hand controls in motorsports that it makes me believe that regardless of how my progression goes, I will be in a race car again. Just a matter of which car. The dream is an Indy car.

“I know the team has been very outspoken that they’ll always have a car for me when I can race. I think there’s also rules and regulations that we have to abide to. I don’t know how many modifications we can make, etc. We’ll have to cross that bridge when we get there.

“The second question, why? It’s all I know. I mean, that’s the biggest thing. From such a young age, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I told my parents when I was like 9 or 10 that I want to be a race car driver. They laughed at me and told me that night in bed, ‘Our kid wants to be a race car driver!’ Like unachievable thing I wanted to do. I was telling them I want to be the first man to Mars back in the late ’90s. I don’t know. I was young.

“It’s really all I know. Everyone told me early-on, if you can’t race again, you’re still going to do something great with your life. I’m a hard worker. I know I’m going to land on my feet somewhere. I wasn’t happy with that answer. Like, I don’t want a nine-to-five job hustling somewhere new. I want to hustle as a race car driver. Even if I had to learn something new, like hand controls, I know it’s something I’ll work hard with.

“There’s Alex Zanardi, the guy to get back into motorsports post-injury. When I look at what he did in Daytona (Rolex 24-Hour race with BMW) this year, when I look at what he did in DTM last year, as a racer who raced in DTM for so long, great he got a top-10 without even testing.

“Anything is possible. I know I’m a hard worker, analytical. I think I could get on top of hand controls. My only fear is that I always wanted to get back into racing as I left off, on the same level that I left off. I don’t want to be just a driver in the field. I want to be one competing to win the podiums like I was when I went out. That’s kind of the main thing for me.”

QUESTION: We saw the video of you getting onto the plane yesterday. How difficult has travel been for you with this condition?

ROBERT WICKENS: “Well, that was actually my first flight I was sitting in a seat. All the other ones I’ve been in a medical plane on a stretcher. So far travel has been fine domestically, jumping in Ubers and taxis is a transfer from the wheelchair into the seat. It honestly hasn’t fazed me that much. It’s harder having to break down that wheelchair for me to get into those cars. Travel so far hasn’t really been a problem. I’m sure it’s kind of like a puzzle in a way. I’m kind of interested to see how it plays out.”

QUESTION: How much of an inspiration has Sam been as your team-owner and a friend?

ROBERT WICKENS: “Sam’s been super-helpful throughout the whole thing. I mean, just the fact when the injury happened, he already knew basically like the good doctors, the good surgeons. Before I would get to the hospital that I was going to, he already had vetted it for me…

“At the time I wasn’t in a space to recognize. But he was always making sure I would get the best care possible. Nothing dodgey, but everything legally. He just knew so much because of his injury, because of his research and everything he’s done with his paralysis. He’s been to so many rehabilitation hospitals, that when that became a reality for me, he knew the ins-and-outs of every hospital, every rehab facility we were looking at. In the end we came to the conclusion of where we wanted to go. It was kind of a full team decision. It wasn’t just me trusting a doctor that recommended it. I felt like we really made the right choice in the places that we went.

“Then from there moving forward, he has his place in Las Vegas, a facility, which has opened. That could be a very viable option for me once rehab finishes and I still need a place to keep conditioning. It’s hard to put in words really what he’s done. I think he did a lot that I still don’t realize, because I was in a state that I wasn’t able to realize what he was doing.”

QUESTION: You’ve had a lot of drivers, some have been through adversity like yours, reach out, trying to connect. What has that meant throughout this process?

ROBERT WICKENS: “Yeah, it’s been amazing. I always knew that the motorsport world was always supportive. I know I’ve always been supportive when a driver had an accident, even though you didn’t know them. If there’s ever that day where you read a fatal story, the outreach is always so good to that family.

“To be on the other end of that was something special. Still, again, like at the early stages of the accident, I still don’t know really the full effect of what the support was like. I haven’t been home in Indianapolis still since that day. I’ve heard through Karli, I’ve heard through the team, that there’s cases and cases of mail waiting for us to open. The outreach was fantastic.

“From the motorsport world, all the drivers, big names, small names, every post I make, every progression I do, they’re right there behind me motivating me, reassuring me that I can do it. Honestly, when those drivers kind of reach out to you, you want to do it even more. I think that’s kind of the bigger thing, is I want to finish this journey not just for myself but for the whole motorsports community. I don’t want to fall short in any way.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 9 2019
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