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.”

Ryan: Stressful second title is a soup good for Josef Newgarden’s soul

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MONTEREY, Calif. – At her family’s home in Nashville, Tennessee, Tina Newgarden always keeps an extra stash of corn chowder in the freezer.

She never knows when her son, Josef, unexpectedly might drop by in desperate need of his go-to comfort food.

“It’s just in case I’m not at home, and he just goes in and grabs it himself if he’s coming home from out of town,” Tina said with a knowing smile. “And then you’ll catch him down there eating his favorite soup and watching a movie.”

When he gets done this week with the whirlwind of media obligations required after becoming an NTT IndyCar Series champion for the second time, you probably will find Newgarden curled up on the couch with a warm bowl of old-fashioned goodness in his lap and an inspirational flick on the TV (perhaps a screening of “Return of the Jedi” for a Star Wars fan).

He was crowned Sunday as the best driver on a highly competitive circuit after a season of excellence (average start of 5.5, average finish of 5.6), but Josef Newgarden really has had a tough couple of months.

That was evident in the tears that flowed immediately after he exited his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet and seemed ready to collapse in a pool of relief from the mental exhaustion and high anxiety that had followed his quest to become a two-time champion.

“I don’t ever cry,” Newgarden, 28, said Sunday after gritting out an eighth-place finish that clinched the championship in the season finale at Laguna Seca Raceway. “Actually, it infuriates my fiancée because I don’t think I’ve ever cried in front of her. It disturbed her in some ways. She’s like, ‘You never cry! I don’t know why you don’t do that. You should cry at some point.”

If there’s anyone who knew how the 2019 points battle weighed on him, it was Ashley Welch and the rest of Newgarden’s family – the outlet that was emotionally invested and supportive of his career but also provides a release from the tension.

Josef Newgarden celebrates with his father, Joey (left), his grandmother Karen Rasmussen (front), his fiancee, Ashley (second from right), and mother Tina (right) after his second championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

They were all on hand Sunday (including his father, Joey, and his “Mormor” Karen Rasmussen, the 80-year-old maternal grandmother who came from Denmark to attend her second IndyCar race) and shared in the culmination of what’s been a very emotional and eventful year (which still has wedding bells ahead).

Josef Newgarden with his grandmother (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Was it stressful?

“To say the least,” a beaming Welch said as she watched her fiancé hoist the Astor Cup on the championship stage. “The level of competitiveness in this sport is unreal. Any different guy can come in and win any different race.

“For him to be leading all of those different guys who had just as much potential, if not more sometimes. It means so much. We had a friend tell him after the first one, anyone can win one championship, but they remember you if you win two. So I think he feels like ‘Oh, it’s not just luck. I’m meant to be here.’ And that is …”

Welch paused and her voice briefly quavered as she watched Newgarden, whom she has been together with for seven years (they were engaged last October), hoist the Astor Cup above his head.

“Beautiful,” she smiled. “So I think you see all his emotion coming from it. I know him, and he’s thinking about how many people put their neck on the line to get him to where he is today. He talks about when he was little and starting to watch IndyCar racing, Penske was his pinnacle. Getting to drive for them but being able to perform and make an impact on their history, he feels it so much.

“You saw all the outpouring of “My dreams have come true! I’ve worked so hard, and they’re here!”

It certainly was a different feeling than two years ago when Newgarden won the pole position at Sonoma, led 41 laps and won punctuated his inaugural championship with a runner-up finish in the season finale.

Sunday’s drive was indicative of the weight – and wait — that Newgarden had endured while leading the championship standings for virtually six consecutive months since winning the season opener at St. Petersburg (he was out of the points only once – after a fourth in the Indianapolis 500 that now is the only void in his career).

“The first (championship), it was shocking and overwhelming,” Tina Newgarden said. “The second time it’s almost like he had this mark on his back because he’s been leading the points the whole season. So it would be really sad, devastating if he didn’t get it at the end of the season. But I’m so proud of him. He’s very disciplined. He just loves it so much.”

“If he’s down and has a bad day, then we’re down having a bad day as well. It’s terrible, but that’s just how it is. This is a good year, so now we can all breathe. The last two months has really been a little stressful. So yeah. We’ve been trying to keep the mood up, but God, I’m so happy!”

Newgarden, who qualified fourth and never had winning pace all weekend, said he felt “more nervous because I felt like this one was more ours to lose, and I thought we deserved (the championship). I didn’t want to make a mistake. I got a bit nervous in the middle of the race because I thought we were going down a rabbit hole we didn’t want to be down.”

But the very un-Newgarden-esque eighth – only the fourth time in 17 races he finished outside the top 10 this season – was the outcome of a sound pit strategy that delivered the title by 25 points over Simon Pagenaud, who proclaimed his Penske teammate “the most deserving guy” to win the title.

“It didn’t really start weighing on me until we got (to Laguna Seca),” Newgarden said. “I knew it would hit me here because it was double points. You know it’s going to be a very difficult situation. It’s just that intensity and that unknown, where if you make a small mistake, it can turn into a very big mistake. At another event, it wouldn’t be that way.”

Team owner Roger Penske noticed Newgarden had butterflies on the race morning before he would join Sam Hornish Jr. as the only American to win multiple IndyCar championships in the past two decades. “I think there’s so much emotion inside for someone like that because you’ve got to be perfect,” Penske said. “And I think the fact that he was able to execute the way he did, it was just a time to let it all out.”

Newgarden now is among lofty company on a list of multi-time champions at Team Penske that includes Rick Mears, Tom Sneva, Al Unser and Gil de Ferran. And his four-win season helped him take a critical step toward putting his name with true IndyCar legends such as A.J. Foyt (seven championships), Scott Dixon (five) and Mario Andretti (four).

“I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s harder to win a second championship than a first,” he said. “And I think in a lot of ways, that’s true. It’s very difficult to win a championship. But then to follow it up and make it happen again, it seems like a bigger mountain almost.

“I don’t know what causes that. But I just had it in my mind that if we could get this done, it’d be the achievement of the year.”

It’s especially impressive considering everything Newgarden is trying to accomplish in 2019. Besides winning a championship, he also:

–Will be getting married Oct. 26 to Welch in Nashville;

Moved from Davidson, North Carolina, (near Team Penske headquarters) to his hometown;

–Began building a house with Welch, who also brought home a rescue pup named Zoomer (or affectionately known as “Zoom” around home). “They say a year, but it’s going to be a year and a half” to finish, Welch said with a laugh. “We were in a one-bedroom apartment. I told him I don’t want to have kids in a one-bedroom apartment.”

–Underwent several oral surgeries to correct some improper dental work from childhood.

“We could have taken a couple things off the plate,” Newgarden said. “But you know what? Everything needed to be done. We wanted everything to get done, and we’re doing it all. I don’t know how the year worked out, because (racing) is the priority. You do all those things and decide, ‘Yeah, we’re going to make the plate this full.’ But something still has to take the cake at the end of the day, and the racing is what does that. And everyone knows that’s the program, and this is the most important part of the year, because you don’t get that back.

“If you have an opportunity to race and compete for a championship, when it’s there, you’ve got to take it. So I tried to keep that at the forefront of my mind all year, and I made it the priority, but it was just a little more difficult with all the other things going on.”

Josef Newgarden kisses his fiancee, Ashley Welch, after winning the NTT IndyCar Series championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Welch, who knew nothing about racing while working as a princess cast member at Disney World when Newgarden “swept me off my feet,” provides a release valve. Though she is comfortable with being a knowledgeable member of the paddock (“I know what push to pass means. That was a big thing for me”), Welch also can help distract him from the pressure of IndyCar.

“I think it’s better to know less, because then he is able to escape at home and make home be home, and then work be work,” she said. “Because when you’re in a professional sport, you can’t really escape the work. It comes home with you whether in interviews or social media, or just obligations in general, or practice, or research. You’re always living in it, so I think it’s really smart to just have your home be home.”

In that sense, staying busy in his personal life has been good for the extremely affable Newgarden, a self-described introvert who gradually has withdrawn from social media in his late 20s.

Though he is as articulate and eloquent as any driver in auto racing, he also is happy to defer to his teammates on promotional opportunities because “I go home and am happy to be away from all of it. … I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just my introverted-ness that’s getting worse. I really try to do the best I can for the series and team and partners. It is so important to represent in the right way, but at the same time, it’s gotten harder” to be on social media in a professional setting.

“It’s all the racing,” Tina Newgarden said when asked about the source of her son’s stress. “Him building a house and all that, that’s nothing. That’s easy. (Winning a championship) is not easy. Anything else is easy.

“He got it, so I’m so proud of him. He’s one of the very lucky ones that made it here, because for every one, I’m sure there are 500 (drivers) looking in, wanting to have that. But he worked hard, and I just told him one time, ‘Don’t be so moody about it when it doesn’t go well.’ He’s still moody about it if it doesn’t go well! He’s still the same.”

That’s why the bowl of corn chowder still is waiting in her freezer.

A hearty meal for two-time champion who finally can relax.