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.”

Steinbrenner brings winning tradition to IndyCar Victory Lane

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
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AUSTIN, Texas – Opening Day for the New York Yankees in Major League Baseball is Thursday against the hapless Baltimore Orioles. But the Steinbrenner family can already celebrate a big-time, major league victory in 2019.

George Michael Steinbrenner, IV is the 22-year-old son of Yankees co-owner and co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner. He is the grandson of the legendary Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, whose fiery tenure at the helm of the Yankees restored the team to the prestige and pride it continues to enjoy as the most successful professional sports franchise in the world.

Steinbrenner, IV, is co-owner of Harding Steinbrenner Racing in the NTT IndyCar Series and the youngest team owner in IndyCar history.

When his grandfather was ruling the Yankees, excellence wasn’t expected; it was demanded. Those are traits that define the Steinbrenner family.

On Sunday at Circuit of the Americas, young Steinbrenner became an IndyCar winner in just his third race in the series in the INDYCAR Classic. It was also historic as his driver, Colton Herta, became the youngest driver in history to win an IndyCar race at race at 18 years, 11 months and 25 days. Graham Rahal was 19 years 3 months and 2 days when he won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2008.

“Break up the Yankees” was a popular battle cry around baseball in the glory days of the boys in pinstripes, from Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle to Reggie Jackson to Derek Jeter and A-Rod.

What makes the latest Steinbrenner winner so stunning, is how quickly it happened.

“We didn’t think this was possible so soon,” Steinbrenner told NBC Sports.com from the team’s pit stand seconds after the checkered flag waved for Herta’s victory. “What a drive by Colton and what a job by the crew. They did everything they could to keep us ahead of the 2 car (Josef Newgarden) all day. Wow, I can’t believe it.”

Steinbrenner has the Yankees in his blood and DNA, but his passion has always been IndyCar racing. He was just 16 when he met then 12-year-old Herta at a Skip Barber race at Lime Rock, Connecticut. The two became friends and joined together to begin their climb to IndyCar.

“I interned at Bryan Herta Rallysport for the 2016 season, learning the top to bottom of how a race team operates during the week and during the weekend,” Steinbrenner recalled. “When Colton and I decided that we’d start this crazy journey together in Indy Lights, being able to partner with Andretti Autosport in Indy Lights was huge. They’re a buttoned-down organization, do everything right. To be able to learn from the folks there was a huge jump-start, the perfect jump-start I could have hoped for, for INDYCAR ownership.”

For two years, they joined forces with team owner Michael Andretti in Indy Lights. Andretti helped broker a deal for Steinbrenner and Herta to step up to IndyCar by joining a team owned by Indianapolis paving company owner Mike Harding.

Harding Steinbrenner Racing was announced last summer with tremendous fanfare at Yankee Stadium before a New York Yankees game.

Andretti is still part of the operation as Andretti Technologies supplies engineering and crew support to Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

“None of this would have been possible without Michael Andretti,” Herta said. “I’d like to say thank you to Michael and his team. He elevated us to the top really quick and without them we wouldn’t be here.”

When Steinbrenner announced his goal of taking Herta to the IndyCar, it was a long-term commitment. Herta’s first victory at an 18-year-old could be the start of something great, beginning another winning tradition for the Steinbrenners.

“We’ve had a pretty good start here,” Steinbrenner said. “This is huge, to get this win off our belts. We showed the IndyCar world what we could do.”

Herta qualified fourth and raced his way to third in a race that Will Power dominated. The Team Penske driver led the first 45 laps from the pole while he was pursued by Alexander Rossi.

The two front-runners planned on being the last two drivers in the 24-car field to make their final pit stop.

That plan was foiled, however, when James Hinchcliffe’s Honda ran into the back of Felix Rosenqvist’s Honda, sending it into the barrier in Turn 20. That was the only caution in the 60-lap race. Power and Rossi would go from the top two to 14thand 15thafter making their pit stops.

Power’s race ended on pit lane when a broken half-shaft kept his car from engaging in gear and he went from first to worst in the 24-car field.

That put Herta in the lead under caution. Right behind him was the intimidating sight of the No. 2 Chevrolet driven by Team Penske’s 28-year-old Josef Newgarden, the 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion and the winner of the 2019 season-opener at St. Petersburg, Florida.

“We knew we got on the right side of the pit strategy and had the pace to stay ahead of two extremely fast guys behind us,” Steinbrenner said. “It was a matter of Colton staying out in front and nursing it home.”

When the green flag waved to restart the race with 10 laps left, the 18-year-old was calm and cool as he was able to get a great restart and pull away from Newgarden.

Back in the pit area, Steinbrenner stood on the timing stand in the pits alongside co-owner Mike Harding and team president and race strategist Brian Barnhart. Because COTA is a 20-turn, 3.41-mile road course, it takes a while to complete a lap. Herta had the fastest lap in the race on Lap 54 and it was 108.9853 seconds.

The long course added to the tension as the 60-lap race neared its conclusion.

Steinbrenner, who bears a resemblance to 1980s actor Fisher Stevens, remained cool on the timing stand.

When Herta’s Honda came out of Turn 20 on the final lap to the checkered flag, Steinbrenner could finally celebrate, pumping his fist in the air.

“I was very concerned,” Steinbrenner admitted. “Most of the guys in the paddock, you are concerned with in a situation like that, especially a former champion. It was nerve-racking.

“Wow. It’s a dream come true.”

Steinbrenner got his first win in IndyCar before the New York Yankees.

“Not too far apart, but a couple of days in front,” Steinbrenner laughed.

For a Steinbrenner, there are always more goals to achieve. Sunday’s first victory is like a “regular season” win to the Yankees. That team’s goal is to win the World Series.

Steinbrenner, IV’s goal is to win the biggest race in the world – the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26.

“I think there’s a pretty big race in May,” Steinbrenner said. “I think for us, that’s the next big goal.

“I grew up with two passions: baseball and racing. I thought my family had one pretty well covered. We’ll go and chase another one.”

When a Steinbrenner sets a goal, don’t bet against it.