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.”