Ex-IndyCar driver Robert Wickens continues his Rolex 24 comeback at Daytona
- It took him nearly 3 1/2 years, but Robert Wickens will return to racing on January 28, when he competes in the season-opening IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge (IMPC) at Daytona.
- When behind the wheel, Wickens will pilot his #33 Hyundai Elantra N TCR race car with hand controls attached to a secondary steering wheel.
- The driver says he is likely to be a wheelchair user for the rest of his life “as long as modern medicine and science stay where they are”.
Shortly after a gruesome and near-fatal IndyCar accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down in August 2018, Robert Wickens vowed he would be back one day.
It took him nearly 3½ years, but Wickens will keep his word on January 28, when he takes part in the season-opening IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge (IMPC), the four-hour BMW Endurance Challenge race at the 24 Hours Rolex at Daytona Race Weekend.
“Today is a monumental day for us as a team and as fans of Robert Wickens,” Bryan Herta, president of Brian Herta Autosport (BHA), said in a statement. “We have followed Robert’s rehabilitation and marveled at his determination and dedication, as well as his many fans.
“To announce now that he will be returning to professional motorsport in one of our Hyundai Elantra N TCR cars is truly incredible. We thank Hyundai for their incredible support and for helping us pave the way for Robert to get back to where it belongs. “
Wickens will be teaming up for the entire IMPC season with fellow Canadian driver and 2019 IMPC Champion Mark Wilkins, essentially making it a Wickens-Wilkins show, so to speak.
“I really wanted to make sure in my life where I am right now that it’s something I wanted to do,” Wickens said of his return to racing on a Friday conference call. “It didn’t take a lot of thought, but the most important thing was to put the pieces together, like a budget to compete.
“To put all these pieces together took time, but with a lot of hard work and a lot of committed people, we got me where we needed to be.”
When behind the wheel, Wickens will pilot his #33 Hyundai Elantra N TCR race car with hand controls attached to a secondary steering wheel that underpins the primary wheel, and which essentially does everything normal foot controls do. , in particular braking (he controls his speed with the paddles on the steering wheel).
When it comes time for Wickens to get out and hand the car over to his teammate, he will be assisted by crew members.
“We made a fake driver change to get me out of the car, to see what we’re dealing with, and I was out in six seconds,” Wickens said. “So I’m pretty confident that we can keep working to reduce that time. I’m not worried at all about getting in or out of the car.
There is apparently no time limit on how quickly a driver must exit a car during a pit stop. The IMSA regulations state: “The driver must be able to exit the car from the driver’s side and the passenger’s side in the event of an emergency to the satisfaction of IMSA.”
Wickens expects he will drive between a minimum of 40 minutes in the four-hour race and a maximum of 3 hours and 20 minutes, also under IMSA rules.
Once Wilkins replaces Wickens in the car, the former will quickly deactivate the push buttons on the bespoke undercover steering wheel that houses Wickens’ hand controls, returning the car to normal pedal control for Wilkins.
BHA is a three-time IMSA IMPC Championship winning organization and has worked with Wickens for the past 18 months, including last May at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, when Wickens tested a Hyundai Veloster N TCR using manual controls, nearly 1,000 days after his near-fatal accident at Pocono Raceway on August 19, 2018.
Wickens has been nothing short of miraculous in her recovery, including fulfilling a vow to stand up and dance at her wedding to Karli Woods on September 30, 2019, just over a year after her accident.
The January 28 race will be another milestone in Wickens’ recovery. He will start the four-hour endurance race before giving way to Wilkins.
“I’ve spent many nights thinking and dreaming about this moment, and with the support of Bryan Herta and Hyundai, it’s all coming true,” Wickens said. “I’m hungrier now than before my accident to compete for wins again.”
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After serving as a Formula 1 test driver, Wickens roared onto the IndyCar scene in 2018 and immediately proved himself a force to be reckoned with:
• Led from pole for all but the last two laps in the season-opening race at St Petersburg before being involved in a late-race crash that put him out of the race victory (he finished 18th).
• He had four podiums in 14 starts before his sinking, including second places at Phoenix (the race after St. Pete) and Mid-Ohio, as well as third places in races in his hometown of Toronto and Indianapolis Grand Prize.
• Was named Rookie of the Year at the 102nd Indianapolis 500 that season, finishing an impressive ninth.
But all of the accolades — along with expectations of multiple wins to come — ended in a terrifying wreck on Lap 7 of the Pocono race, one of the most brutal IndyCar wrecks in recent memory.
Wickens suffered a thoracic spine fracture, spinal cord injury, neck fracture, tibia and fibula fractures in both legs, fractures in both hands, right forearm fracture, a broken elbow, a concussion, four fractured ribs and a pulmonary contusion.
He’s been on near-constant physical therapy ever since, with a
perseverance and perseverance which has enabled him to achieve many breakthroughs and milestones in his recovery.
Wickens will race next weekend’s Roar Before the 24 for the first time, essentially a prelude a week before the IMPC event, an undercard event for the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona International Speedway.
Wickens said he was at the point where he accepted his fate for the rest of his life.
“Honestly, what you see is what you get,” Wickens said. “I’m at the point where my recovery has more or less plateaued in terms of neurological recovery. I haven’t regained muscle function anymore, so unfortunately it looks like I’ll be in a (wheelchair) chair for the rest of my life. life as long as modern medicine and science stay where they are.
“It’s a good life, I was able to find a lot of function. I can get up and take a few steps with a bit of support, but as far as getting out of the chair for good, I don’t think that’s in my pipeline right now.
And while he remains an advisor to the Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar team, a return to IndyCar racing seems less likely for Wickens, at least at present.
“I was hoping they would move to a brake-by-wire concept, especially with the hybrid elements they include (in the new 2023 car),” Wickens said. “To my knowledge, I don’t believe they did, so we’re stuck in the same circle that we were originally.
“I think anything is possible with the time, money and resources. It’s a big ask, a colossal ask, but honestly, I’m at the point in my life where if I ever go back to IndyCar, I’m very happy with it and really looking forward to the opportunity. that I have with Hyundai and Bryan Herta Autosport, to really get back behind the wheel and feel that hunger that I’ve had for so many years, looking sideways.
“If things arise in the future, we will deal with them as they arise. But at the moment, I don’t see IndyCar as an option for my comeback. … It would take (the construction of) almost a unique Indy car, which I don’t know if other teams would agree with.
Wickens returns to the driver’s seat during next week’s Roar Before the 24 practice sessions at Daytona International Speedway. He’s more than ready to rev his engine and get back to chasing after wins and championships.
“My track record in the past speaks for itself, but I feel like I’m starting a whole new chapter in my story,” Wickens said. “I guess I haven’t forgotten how to drive, but I think until we’re green-flagged and racing wheel to wheel, we’ll see what we’ve got.”
Wickens summed up his goals quite succinctly:
“Aim big, right? Let’s go for the win. The goal is simple: try to win this thing. I feel like I was forced to leave in 2018 almost at the peak of my career I felt great I never felt healthier or stronger I felt like I was driving the best that I have ever driven. I want to start racing, I want to continue where I left off and at least fight for victory or the podium, if necessary.
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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