Wickens Returns To A Cockpit In Toronto

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, July 14 2019
IndyCar’s Robert Wickens will put the helmet back on in Toronto on Sunday.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Patient 31265 will strap-in and drive a specially equipped street car prior to the start of Sunday’s NTT IndyCar Series race in Canada. And after Robert Wickens delivers the command to start engines, the Honda Indy Toronto at Exhibition Place will become…just another race.

Less than one year after suffering a spinal cord injury in a violent crash at Pocono Raceway,  Wickens is scheduled to drive an Acura NSX equipped with hand controls on the parade lap at the start of the season’s 11th of 17 races. The 85-lapper will be televised live at 3 p.m. (EDT) by NBC Sports Network.

Recall that Wickens was INDYCAR’s Rookie of the Year in 2018 with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Honda, the team’s engine manufacturer, has provided the car while primary sponsor Arrow created the modifications that will allow Wickens _ without the use of his legs _ to get back behind the steering wheel.

“I’ve had this dream for so long to get back, and this was the target to get the car ready for Toronto,” Wickens, a 30-year-old native of Guelph, Ontario, said during a news conference previewing the weekend. “And it was only fitting that it’s the Honda Indy of Toronto, and it’s my home race. It was kind of the perfect fit.”

Wickens’ first experience in the black-and-gold Acura was recorded Wednesday at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville, Ontario, where he ran laps for about 90 minutes. He followed that shakedown with a 30-minute test session Thursday on Honda Indy Toronto’s 1.786-mile/11-turn street circuit.

“It’s amazing. I mean, I was able to get a couple practice laps in and it put a huge smile on my face,” said Wickens, who finished third in the Toronto race last year. “Just to think how fortunate I am, one, to have such great partners around me to make this happen. Racing is my dream, it’s my passion, it’s all I want to do. And to have a company like Arrow to be so hands-on building the hand controls and then a company like Honda that somehow trusts me with a very expensive car is…I still don’t know why. I actually bent a wheel already. I’m notoriously hard on equipment.”

“Bend all you want,” said Ted Klaus, president, Honda Performance Development. “We’ll make more.”

Klaus and Mike Long, Arrow Electronics’ chairman/president and CEO, have been key contributors to the project. Both view Sunday’s drive as the first phase of Wickens’ comeback.

“There was an interesting piece of this that I think everybody in the world was wondering _will Robert go fast again?” Long said. “I will tell you I don’t think there’s any question. We wanted to start this now with Robert so we can be a part of his rehab together with our friends at Honda and get Robbie back to racing because that’s what he wants, and we’re going to be there to support that effort all the way.

“We’re showing off this technology because this technology could be for anybody in the world with Robbie’s problem to get back on the road with a car and drive their own way. So that’s really what drives us is trying to do good. We will continue to develop this all the way back to the Indy car for Robert, whatever he may need, and there will be certain pressures that I’m sure will be put on INDYCAR to allow it to happen.

“I’m totally convinced we can put Robert back in a car. It will be possible for him to drive, and we won’t stop until he gets there.”

Klaus added, “I do hope that as Robbie really enjoys re-learning how to control the car with his hands, I’m sure he’s going to realize he’s just using different parts of his brain and his body with this man-machine/woman-machine challenge. It’s just amazing.”

The Acura features a kit that controls the throttle and acceleration with a ring on the steering wheel and software. The brake is a mechanical handbrake with the driver’s right hand. There is no clutch; Wickens will shift using paddles on the steering wheel. Arrow also has updated brakes, tires and racing seatbelts.

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

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 racing again.

Wickens qualified on-pole for his first IndyCar Series start _ the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Fla., 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.

Sam Schmidt, Wickens’ team-owner, is paralyzed from the neck down after a crash at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Fla., on Jan. 6, 2000.

Wickens said his rehab has been marked by “steady progress” over the last 11 months. “It’s never _I haven’t woken up one day and had this miraculous gain, but I think little by little we’re getting there, we’re getting a little bit stronger _ well, quite a bit stronger I would say.

“But in terms of new nerves firing, it’s funny, sometimes you don’t really notice, but something will be moving, and you’re like, ‘When did that start moving, I don’t remember that.’ A couple months ago I started gaining some feeling in my abdominal area and I just kind of one time just itched my stomach and realized that I felt it, but I just didn’t…I have no idea how long, if it was that day that I noticed it or it might have been there for weeks.

“But I think luckily I haven’t hit that plateau yet. I’m hoping I never will. And if it does, it’s years down the road because there’s people that defy odds. They always say that nerve regeneration is the first 24 months of a spinal cord injury, but then I know speaking to a lot of patients from Craig Hospital (in Denver) where I was rehabbing, the fact that people find their biggest gains four and five years afterwards because they finally start training really hard or they finally get stronger. Anything is possible with this injury. So I think it’s not easy, but hopefully we can keep on keeping on.”

Wickens will be accompanied Sunday by his fiancee, Karli Woods, riding in the passenger seat. The couple is planning a September wedding. During a news conference prior to the season-opener in St. Pete, Wickens said he planned to dance on his wedding day.

“I haven’t practiced since March,” Wickens said. “I’ll confidently say I’ll be able to stand there, and that wouldn’t have been much different than if I wasn’t injured in the first place. Hopefully we can sway a little bit. She might have to take the lead, and I’ll just drag behind her. We’ll figure something out.”

Wickens added he feels like “I’m being portrayed as this extremely strong and inspirational person but behind every good person is a great team.” His team includes everyone from Woods to the fans and the continual encouragement that has been central to his progress.

“It’s been a big eye-opener for me, this whole injury,” Wickens said. “I have a whole new perspective on life, which I guess there’s good to take away from that. But the biggest thing for me is when I was in rehab every single day, it was the support that I had from my racing partners, from my family, from Karli, from all the fans, from everyone that kind of was getting me there to the gym the next day.

“And I was always…when I was at rehab, I was just Patient 31265. And then you get to become friends with these patients and you hear their story, and then like I get back to my place at the end of the day and I kind of think like, ‘Man, I’m so lucky that I have such great support everywhere.’ If I’m having a bad day, just all my fans can just come and pick me up where everyone else can easily get into this big spiral and get into some depression and everything.

“It’s just been quite the ride, and we’re not even one year in of what’s going to be a very long recovery. But hopefully I can keep on driving because I think that’s the best therapy I can have. I’m a little bit concerned by how eager I am to get back in the car, especially after driving (Thursday).

“Because yeah, I was always having this…it’s kind of like the angel and the devil on each shoulder because once I get back into racing fulltime, the rehab is almost going to be sidelined and then I need to figure out at what point am I OK to start driving again and almost give up on rehabbing. That’s a future problem. So right now we can just focus on this event and how fun it’s going to be.”In fact, the devil on Wickens’ shoulder hinted he may be looking for a bit more wheel time following his parade lap. “I will neither confirm nor deny,” Wickens said. “I’m trying to figure out what that penalty would be if I just kept going.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, July 14 2019
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