INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski

Robert Wickens feels ‘liberated’ after driving a car for the first time since his Pocono crash

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TORONTO – Robert Wickens drove an Acura NSX specially modified with hand controls on a ring throttle attached to the steering wheel Thursday.

On Friday, he told NBC Sports.com that he felt “liberated” by the experience.

Wickens remains paralyzed from the waist down after a serious crash at Pocono Raceway on Aug. 19, 2018. He continues to recover from spinal injuries.

The Guelph, Ontario, native will take the next step in his rehabilitation by taking the modified Acura NSX on a parade lap before Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto NTT IndyCar Series race. His fiancé, Karli Woods, will be by his side in the passenger seat.

“This was the longest I’ve not driven anything since I was 7 years old,” Wickens said in an introductory video shot after his initial drive on Thursday. “It definitely felt like freedom. It was something that finally felt familiar to me.

“Braking points, hitting an apex, bouncing over curbs; it all felt the same. It was fun to figure that stuff out, and I’m really excited to keep this project going and see where it takes us.

“This is just Phase One of many more phases to come.”

Wickens took his practice laps around the street course at Toronto’s Exhibition Place, site of Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto.

“I was able to get a couple practice laps in yesterday, and it put a huge smile on my face,” Wickens said. “Just to think how fortunate I am, one, to have such great partners around me to make this happen. Racing is my dream, it’s my passion, it’s all I want to do. And to have a company like Arrow to be so hands-on building the hand controls and then a company like Honda that somehow trusts me with a very expensive car is … I still don’t know why.

“But I actually bent a wheel already.”

Wickens has made dramatic improvement following a crash that included a neck fracture, fractures in both legs, fractures in both hands, fractured forearm, fractured elbow, fractured ribs, pulmonary contusion, thoracic spinal fracture and a spinal cord injury.

“It’s been a big eye-opener for me, this whole injury,” Wickens said. “I have a whole new perspective on life, which I guess there’s good to take away from that, but the biggest thing for me is when I was in rehab every single day. It was the support that I had from my racing partners, from my family, from Karli, from all the fans, from everyone that kind of was getting me there to the gym the next day.

“When I was at rehab, I was just patient 31,265, and then you get to become friends with these patients and you hear their story, and then like I get back to my place at the end of the day and I kind of think like, ‘Man, I’m so lucky that I have such great support everywhere.’ If I’m having a bad day, just all my fans can just come and pick me up where everyone else can easily get into this big spiral and get into some depression and everything.”

Phase One of the Arrow project is a kit that controls the throttle and acceleration with a ring on the steering wheel and software. The brake is a mechanical handbrake with the driver’s right hand.

There is no clutch. Wickens will shift using paddles on the steering wheel. Arrow has also updated brakes, tires, racing seatbelts, and the goal is to make the driver from the Toronto suburbs competitive again.

The entire experience, though, was liberating.

“I think the most liberating part was as soon as I got into the car, I got strapped in and like pushed the ring throttle for the first time, and the car started creeping away, and then I just like went full throttle just to kind of see what it would do,” Wickens said in response to a question from NBCSports.com. “Honestly, the car is so good that that was kind of a moment where I’m like, ‘Yeah, I miss that,’ and that was one of those situations. Because the thing is, once you’ve driven an IndyCar in anger for a while, it’s hard to get excited by a road car.

“But it works. It was one of those moments where I actually stayed full throttle for a while and then I kind of just coasted to kind of just take it all in and experience it all, and like I said before, just how grateful I am that Arrow could allow me to accelerate a car without using my legs was something pretty special.”

Physically, Wickens continues to make progress in regaining feeling in his lower body, but he is still confined to a wheelchair.

“There is always steady progress,” Wickens said. “I haven’t woken up one day and had this miraculous gain, but I think little by little, we’re getting there, we’re getting a little bit stronger — well, quite a bit stronger I would say.

“In terms of new nerves firing, it’s funny, sometimes you don’t really notice, but something will be moving, and you’re like, ‘When did that start moving? I don’t remember that.’

“A couple months ago, I started gaining some feeling in my abdominal area, and I just kind of one time just itched my stomach and realized that I felt it, but I have no idea how long, if it was that day that I noticed it or it might have been there for weeks.

“Luckily I haven’t hit that plateau yet. I’m hoping I never will. And if it does, it’s years down the road because there’s people that defy odds. They always say that nerve regeneration is the first 24 months of a spinal cord injury, but then I know speaking to a lot of patients from Craig Hospital where I was rehabbing, the fact that people find their biggest gains four and five years afterwards because they finally start training really hard or they finally get stronger. Anything is possible with this injury. So, I think it’s not easy, but hopefully we can keep on keeping on.”

The next goal for Wickens is to dance at his wedding when he marries Woods later this year.

“Like I said in March, I’ll confidently say I’ll be able to stand there, and then jokingly like that wouldn’t have been much different than if I wasn’t injured in the first place,” Wickens said of his dancing ability. “Hopefully we can sway a little bit. She might have to take the lead, and I’ll just drag behind her.

“But we’ll figure something out.”

Lewis Hamilton receives Daytona 500 invitation from Bubba Wallace

Lewis Hamilton Bubba Wallace
Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images
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Lewis Hamilton is a fan of the new NASCAR Cup Series team formed by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan to field a car for Bubba Wallace.

Will the six-time Formula One champion also be a fan in person at a NASCAR race in the near future?

Wallace is hoping so.

After Hamilton tweeted his support Tuesday morning about the news of a Hamlin-Jordan-Wallace team making its debut with the 2021 season, Wallace responded with a sly invitation to the Daytona 500.

Much would need to be worked out, starting with how much garage and grandstand access would be afforded for a 2021 season opener that likely would occur during a still ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

But it would seem fitting given that Hamilton and Wallace have been two of the world’s most outspoken Black athletes about the quest for diversity and racial justice. Hamilton recently reaffirmed his commitment to activism after his donning a Breonna Taylor shirt sparked an FIA inquiry.

The idea of Hamilton attending the season opener already had legs, too. The Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 driver has expressed a desire to race the Daytona 500 after he has retired from Formula One.

He was a spectator (with racing legend Mario Andretti) at four-time champion Jeff Gordon’s final Cup race as a full-time in the 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In 2011, Hamilton swapped cars with three-time champion Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen International.

Having rubbed shoulders with other racing greats so often, it only would be fitting if Hamilton — who is one victory from tying Michael Schumacher’s career record and also could tie the F1 record with a seventh championship this season — spent some time with the greatest basketball player of all time.

Jeff Gordon was flanked by Mario Andretti and Lewis Hamilton before the 2015 Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).