Robert Wickens receives warm welcome in IndyCar return

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ST. PETERSBURG, Florida –Robert Wickens vowed to become the “greatest spinal cord recovery in history.” From the remarkable progress the Canadian driver has made since his violent crash at Pocono Raceway on August 19, 2018, he might reach that goal.

Wickens remains in a wheelchair as he continues to regain the use of his legs after suffering serious injuries from the crash on Lap 7 of the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono. Wickens car was launched into the air in the Turn 2 “Tunnel Turn” area of Pocono Raceway and sent into the catchfence, spinning violently.

By the time the crash came to a stop, he had serious fractures and a bruised spinal column. He has spent most of the time since at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado – one of the leading spinal rehabilitation hospitals in the United States.

Wickens has chronicled his recovery on Social Media. His most recent gains included getting out of his wheelchair on his own and standing, walking with physical assistance moving his legs, and boarding an aircraft to fly to St. Petersburg, Florida climbing up the stairs, again with physical assistance actually moving his legs.

His primary goal is to be able to dance with his fiancée, Karli Woods, at their wedding later this year.

“Even if I stand perfectly straight, I can wiggle my upper body a little bit,” Wickens said Friday in his return to the NTT IndyCar Series paddock in St. Petersburg. “I don’t know, what defines dancing? That’s the big thing.

“If we can just both stand there and awkwardly stare at each other for three minutes, I think that would be pretty good, as well.”

This was a chance for Wickens to experience some of the best rehabilitation of all – to once again feel part of the INDYCAR Community. He has received tremendous support from his fellow drivers and others actively involved in the sport.

After meeting with the media on Friday, Wickens took part in the IndyCar Autograph Session, signing for the many fans who welcomed him back.

“It’s been amazing,” Wickens said. “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. 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.”

That drive and determination has taken Wickens a long way in such a short period of time.

He admits that he one day wants to return to an Indy car, but that is determined by how much progress he can make in his recovery. The first goals are to regain the use of his legs and actually walk.

If he isn’t able to properly return to an Indy car, he wants to be part of a racing series with hand controls, similar to Alex Zanardi’s BMW IMSA Sports Car.

After going through such a horrifying experience that has left him near paralyzed, why would Wickens want to return to a race car and take another chance at tempting fate?

“It’s all I know,” Wickens said. “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 nine or ten that I want to be a racecar driver. They laughed at me and told me that night in bed, our kid wants to be a racecar 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 racecar driver. Even if I had to learn something new, like hand controls, I know it’s something I’ll work hard with.”

Zanardi is one of two inspirations in Wickens’ return.

“Alex Zanardi, the guy to get back into motorsports post-injury, when I look at what he did in Daytona this year, when I look at what he did in DTM last year, as a racer who raced in DTM for so long, it’s great he got a top 10 without even testing,” Wickens said. “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.”

His other inspiration is team owner Sam Schmidt, a former IndyCar driver that has been paralyzed from the neck down after a crash at Walt Disney World Speedway on January 6, 2000.

Schmidt never let his paralysis define him and is the team owner of Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – Wickens’ team.

“Sam has been super helpful throughout the whole thing,” Wickens said. “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, which was always…

“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.”

After spending months at the rehabilitation facility, Wickens made sure he attended the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and a chance to visit with his fellow drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series was something he looked forward to.

“It’s nice to be back in a world that I’m familiar with,” Wickens said. “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.”

Wickens watched Friday’s practice sessions from the Arrow Schmidt Peterson pit area and found it to be a strange vantage point for a race driver.

“When you’re driving, you know the engineers are talking and figuring out how to make the car better,” Wickens said. “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.”

What has made Wickens’ progress so impressive is the fierce determination and attitude. He has made more progress in such a short period of time than many imagined.

However, he tempers any optimism with reality.

“Honestly, the spinal cord injury, every single person is different,” Wickens said. “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.”

One of his racing rivals in the series is Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport. The two drivers were friends from previous racing series before last year’s season-opening race at St. Petersburg. Wickens won the pole as a rookie and 69 laps in 110-lap race.

He was in position to win the race as the leader on the final restart with just two laps to go. Rossi was second and tried to make the pass going into Turn 1. The car drivers made contact, and Wickens ended up in the tire barrier.

Instead of celebrating a victory, Wickens finished 18th.

The two drivers had other moments of mayhem involving each other and that led to some heated words about one another following the Kohler Grand Prix at Road American in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin last June.

Despite that competitive rivalry, the two remained friends with Rossi visiting him in Colorado during the offseason.

“It’s amazing to me his spirits and how his sense of humor is so positive, and he’s always smiling,” Rossi said. “It’s amazing to see the progress he’s made, because I hadn’t seen him since his move to Colorado, so I didn’t see him for a month and a half or two months. The progress is pretty amazing.

“I’m proud of him and his family and Karli as well. Karli is a rock. If anyone is going to recover from that, it’s definitely those two.”

NHRA ‘C19 Club’: COVID-19 brought them together and back to racing

Photo: Bobby Bennett, CompetitionPlus.com
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Be it a fraternity, social organization or club, some people are just natural joiners. They enjoy being members.

But there’s one club within the NHRA drag racing community that no one intentionally wants to be part of, yet its membership numbers keep growing.

Such is the “C19 Club,” a group of veteran drivers, team members, reporters and PR reps who have battled the COVID-19 virus over the last several months. The number is up to seven members thus far.

And now as the NHRA gets back to racing this weekend in suburban Indianapolis after a 4 ½-month hiatus due to the coronavirus, several of those club members are returning to a dragstrip for the first time since going through what they all term the toughest battle they’ve ever experienced.

Bobby Bennett, publisher/editor of CompetitionPlus.com, one of the most popular web sites in the sport, founded the club after his own fight with the virus.

“I started the club because I realized I wouldn’t be the only one to ever get COVID-19 in the drag racing community,” Bennett said.

But Bennett and others who have fought the virus aren’t just coming back to Indy this weekend to share war stories. Rather, several club members are trying to turn a negative into a positive by either already having donated or plan to donate blood plasma to give antibodies that will hopefully help those currently battling the virus.

Club members have already donated 24 bags of plasma. Bennett alone has donated 16 of those bags, with several infected individuals already having gotten better as a result. Bennett isn’t stopping there, though: he plans to donate four more bags in the next couple of weeks.

Fellow club member Todd Smith, crew chief for Kalitta Motorsports’ Funny Car driver J.R. Todd, as well as Smith’s wife Julie have also donated several bags of plasma, with plans to donate more, too.

Several others, including Top Fuel driver Cory McClenathan, are waiting for the green light from their doctors to donate as well.

Several members of the “C19 Club”: From left, Bobby Bennett, Todd and Julie Smith, Ervin “Jock” Allen and Lee Montgomery. Photo courtesy Bobby Bennett.

 

And others are still going through their own battles with the virus, including Funny Car driver Bob Tasca III, who tested positive last week, and longtime reporter/PR rep Lee Montgomery, who is expected to get the all clear this weekend.

“The way I see it, me and Todd Smith and those of us that have been through COVID are among the safest ones to be around in the pits,” Bennett said. “We’ve got the antibodies that we’ve been giving to help save lives.”

Here are some club “members” stories and their thoughts as NHRA resumes this weekend, and in front of paying fans, at Lucas Oil Raceway in Brownsburg, Indiana:

BOBBY BENNETT: Bennett was among the earliest individuals in the country to come down with COVID-19. He believes he picked up the germs on an early February cross-country redeye flight from Los Angeles to Charlotte, North Carolina after attending a race near Bakersfield, Calif.

MORE: Drag racing writer’s scary battle with COVID-19: ‘You’re wishing you’d die’

“That’s the scariest part of it all, getting back on an airplane,” said Bennett, who flew from Charlotte to Indianapolis on Friday. “Don’t let me fool you about this tough, machismo rah rah thing, I still get scared.

“But that’s where my faith comes in. In a span of a couple of weeks, I’ve had my website hacked, my wife’s water pump has gone out on her car, which is an expensive fix, and my hard drive failed on my main computer and just a few other things. So just one thing right after another, but I’m like, you know what, I’ve had COVID, none of these things compare to that.

“COVID taught me that I’m not invincible. But it also showed me how strong I was inside. The whole reason that we created this C19 Club was because when I was laying there, I was absolutely hopeless, I had nobody to compare notes with, nobody to talk to.

“There was a moment where I was so hopeless that suicide entered my mind as a good way out of this deal. If God didn’t do it quick enough, I would take care of the rest. But I thought about how many people it would hurt. At about the same time I was thinking that, my wife stuck her head in the door and said, ‘Don’t you die on me.’ So I’m like, ‘Alright God, I got your message. We’ll fight another day.’

CompetitionPlus.com publisher/editor Bobby Bennett is back at a racetrack for the first time since he battled COVID-19. He has now formed a club for those who have also battled coronavirus. Photo courtesy Bobby Bennett.

“That’s why I’m going to this race. At one time I said I’m not going to another race until they have a cure for this. But when I started donating and giving plasma to victims and helping others, then I realized just how important it is for me to return to a life of normalcy.”

Bennett has gotten much of his semblance of life back, but like the other club members, is still feeling the virus’ impact. He has to carry two types of inhalers and migraine medicine with him at all times in the event he has a breathing issue or brain-splitting headache, which are two of the post-virus aftereffects.

“You just learn to pace yourself,” Bennett said. “I mean, yeah, I may be showing COVID that it ain’t going to kill me, but it is still throwing a pretty good punch that lasts well after the disease has been declared negative in your body.”

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CORY MCCLENATHAN: The veteran Top Fuel driver is coming out of retirement at this weekend’s event and next weekend’s race – both at the same suburban Indianapolis track – to complete what he terms “unfinished business.”

But McClenathan also has unfinished business with COVID-19. While he has never officially received a positive test result, McClenathan’s doctor is convinced his patient had the disease – in fact, he may have been one of the first people in the U.S. to have it.

McClenathan underwent an antibody test this past Monday and came back negative. He plans on joining Bennett and others in donating plasma in the next few weeks.

Cory McClenahan has some unfinished business this weekend and next. Photo courtesy Cory McClenathan.

McClenathan first started feeling ill in late November and was sick through almost the entire month of December.

“That’s when they just were starting to figure out, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem here’ (with the onset of COVID-19),” McClenathan told NBC Sports. “I went to the doctor and he said, ‘You’ve got a bad upper respiratory issue going on.’ Well, come to find out that was one of the huge things that everybody was seeing along with the headaches, how they come and go every couple hours.

“You’d have a temperature and then two hours later, you wouldn’t. I had every single thing. I was at home by myself, thinking, ‘Man, I’m 57 years old, it’s a flu.’ I was at the point where I was crawling up and down my stairs because I’d get the spins and that blackout feeling.

“When they finally started saying, ‘Hey, this thing called COVID,’ they sent me right out to do a blood test. It came back negative but my doctor said, ‘You can’t go off of that. Those tests are only 55% accurate.’

“My doctor said, ‘You had it. There’s no doubt. The only thing I’d like to do is get you tested’ so I could give plasma, give blood, to try to help other people.

“I basically stayed away from my whole family for well over a month. My mom is going to be 80 soon. So I just I stayed away from her until I got to the point where I could drive and feel good. I’m still having trouble breathing, still struggling with workouts and stuff like that. I just am having such a hard time getting back to where I feel like I’m stronger.

“I’ve never been that sick in my life. It just takes you to your knees. It takes away the taste of food. I ate because I knew I needed it but literally nothing tastes like it’s supposed to be. So I think my biggest fear is when you have this and if you’re older like me, it really kind of does some damage to the inside your body that doesn’t let it come back.

“So I’m wondering, am I 100% right now? No, I don’t think so. Can I get there? Yes, I’ve made big strides in the last couple of weeks working out with a mask on, doing some pretty hard cardio walking and running to see what exactly is going on. I keep a blood oxygen sensor with me just to make sure I’m still within range.

“My doctor said, ‘You had every single factor that had come out. I’m going on the premise that you had it because I saw you back then. And I see you now and you’re making a good comeback, but it’s slow.’ It’s almost like it infects the inside of your body to the point of how do I recover fully?”

McClenathan recovered from his symptoms but still suffers some lingering effects such as shortness of breath and stamina.

“There’s parts of the day where I gotta stop and go, man, I gotta take a breather,” McClenathan said.

One thing that will help significantly while McClenathan drives his 330-mph Top Fuel dragster this weekend and next is his car has a canopy covering, rather than an open cockpit. That canopy allows cool air to be blown into the cockpit as well as McClenathan’s helmet to not only keep him cool, but also to keep a steady stream of air blowing to help his breathing.

“I’m 57 not 25 or 36, but at the same time this is an evil thing,” McClenathan said of COVID-19. “I know the naysayers say the facemask doesn’t help or other things don’t help, but I’ll do anything not to get this again or not to infect somebody else.”

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Todd Smith, crew chief for Funny Car driver JR Todd: Smith and wife Julie live in one of the hot beds of the coronavirus, South Florida.

Todd Smith tested positive on April 21 and self-quarantined at home.

“I had 8 of 10 symptoms,” Smith told NBC Sports. “While waiting for the test results at home for 4-5 days, every day I had a high fever, body aches, vomiting, diarrhea, all this bad stuff. Then I got up to go to the bathroom one morning and blacked out because my blood pressure was so low from being so sick. I fell face first into the kitchen floor, the tile floor, and shattered my nose and my eye socket.”

Todd and Julie Smith. Photo courtesy Todd and Julie Smith.

Smith was hospitalized for four days and should have stayed there. But doctors sent him home, only to have him return a few days after being discharged – and in much, much worse shape.

“I went back to the hospital and was in for 19 days, including in Intensive Care for several days” Smith said. “I was on the brink of having to be put on ventilator. I was on 100 percent oxygen.

“The treated me with hydroxychloroquine shortly after I was admitted to the hospital, but I still ran a fever between 102 and 104 for several days, took round-the-clock Tylenol and was delirious. While I’m over the virus now, it was really rough. It took me close to another month after I was discharged the second time to gradually get back to being healthy.”

But Smith still has residual effects.

“I lost over 35 pounds and I’m still dealing with the broken nose and having a problem with breathing,” he said. “We’re still not sure if I have permanent damage to my lungs.”

While her husband was in isolation at the hospital, Julie Smith also came down with the virus. Fortunately, her case wasn’t as bad and she didn’t require hospitalization.

Todd Smith resumed working on Todd’s car over a month ago, but did much of the work remotely or via only occasional trips back to Kalitta Motorsports’ headquarters near Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“I’m just flying back and forth,” he said. “I come back (to Florida), chill out for about 3-4 days, get some rest, recoup and then go back and do it again,” Smith said. “The doctors just told me to be cautious.”

One of the biggest risks the 57-year-old Smith and all others that have tested positive for the virus and have returned to the race track this weekend is being around nitromethane fumes.

“Nitro,” as it’s called, is a highly combustible fuel that powers Funny Cars and Top Fuel dragsters. The fumes are extremely strong and acrid and present breathing complexities in general, but even more so for those who have breathing issues already or who, like Smith, McClenathan and others, have had their lungs compromised by the virus.

“That was one of the things I was thinking about in the hospital,” Smith said. “Like, okay, this stuff never really bothered me, but it might now because different things are kind of affecting me at this point that never did before like allergy stuff. So, I’m gonna find out how much it will affect me this weekend.

“I’ve got some precautions of keeping my mask on and when we warm the cars up in the pits, we always wear a mask. We’ve been doing that for years to try to protect ourselves from the fumes. Once you get on the starting line, it is what it is, so I’m gonna wear my mask and cross my fingers and go out there like John Wayne and try to make it happen.”

Smith anticipates donating plasma in the next week or so, perhaps after next weekend’s return to Indianapolis. He feels a need to do so.

“This is big and bad and serious and it affected all of us pretty bad,” Smith said. “I received plasma when I was in my second trip to the hospital.

“I personally felt like it made a difference with me, so I knew even then I’m like, ‘Man, I gotta pay it forward because people are donating this stuff and they have lived through it and have the right antibodies and all that kind of stuff. It was like, yeah, I’ve gotta do this.”

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LEE MONTGOMERY: The 53-year-old veteran motorsports writer and PR person will not be in Indianapolis this weekend, as he’s just finished recovering from his own bout with coronavirus.

Like Smith and McClenathan, the North Carolina resident is looking forward to when he can donate plasma, but is also trying to be part of contact tracing studies to help determine how the virus is spread.

Lee Montgomery is just getting over a battle with COVID-19. Photo courtesy Lee Montgomery.

“We were joking and laughing about (the C19 Club) and there’s a little bit of a competition going on between us about who’s gonna donate the most (plasma),” Montgomery said with a chuckle. “I think Bobby’s got a bit of a head start so that’s a little unfair. Using drag racing terms, he’s got the hole shot on us.

“So we’re gonna have to work real hard to catch up to him. As soon as I’m clear, I’m gonna start looking around and see what I can do to help.”

Montgomery first experienced symptoms on June 18, went to his doctor on June 23 and received results that he was positive for COVID-19 on June 26.

“I didn’t really think I had COVID the first time I went to a doctor,” Montgomery said. “I’m one of the fortunate ones. I guess that I had a mild case and it’s gone away, so I’m glad about that.

“But I honestly am a little worried about long-term effects. What does this do to my stomach acid and digestive system? I don’t know. Nobody knows yet.

“Look, it’s a serious global health crisis and if you don’t take it seriously, if you don’t think it’s no big deal, I don’t know where your head is, I honestly don’t. My mother’s in her 80s and I was around her within a week before I tested and so I was really, really worried about her. What if she had contacted the symptoms? That would have been horrible. So wear your mask. It’s really not that complicated.”

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Bennett is pitching those in his group to further show their support to help others by coming up with perhaps a jacket or shirt ring or some other item to not only tout their “membership” in the club, but also to help raise funds for research.

Montgomery, though, has another idea, he said with a chuckle: “I think an appropriate example would be maybe a roll of toilet paper. Put an NHRA logo on it.”

There are two other members of the C19 Club that we’ll feature in both a tragic and heartwarming story in the coming days that is one of the most touching displays of people helping people infected with the virus that involves veteran NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Steve Johnson and his chief technician, Ervin “Jock” Allen.

“We didn’t have much choice but to let COVID kick our butts,” Bennett said. “But it’s not gonna kick our butts the rest of our lives.

“And standing up is our own way of fighting back, like ‘you don’t own me. You might have affected the way that I live my life in certain areas, but you will not own me.’”

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