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.”

Karam, Daly get IndyCar rides with Carlin for Iowa

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NEWTON, Iowa – Sage Karam returns for the second-straight race and Conor Daly is back for another race with Carlin Racing at this weekend’s Iowa 300 NTT IndyCar Series race at Iowa Speedway.

For Karam, it’s his third start of the 2019 season and his second straight with Carlin. In his five starts at Iowa Speedway dating back to 2010, Karam has never finished outside of the top three, recording four wins (USF2000 – 2010, Indy Pro 2000 – 2011 and 2012, Indy Lights – 2013) and scoring his first NTT IndyCar Series podium in 2015 with a third-place finish.

“I’m really excited to be back again this weekend with Carlin and SmartStop Self Storage for the Iowa 300. Iowa Speedway has always been a good track for me in the past, so I’m really looking forward to getting back to work there,” Karam said. “Coming off of a very productive weekend in Toronto, I’m looking forward to applying everything I’ve learned and continuing to work with the team to get the best results possible. A huge thank you to everyone at Carlin and SmartStop Self Storage for a great opportunity to race at one of my favorite tracks.”

Daly is back in a second Carlin entry. Earlier this year, the popular driver finished 11th for Carlin in the DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8. At Iowa, he will drive the team’s No. 23 Gallagher Chevrolet.

Daly finished 10th in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge for Andretti Autosport.

Daly raced at Iowa in 2016 for Dale Coyne Racing (finishing 21st) and in 2017 for A.J. Foyt Racing (finishing 19th).

The combination gives Carlin two more drivers to gather additional feedback on the car. Max Chilton remains the team’s primary driver but announced recently that he will forego all oval races to concentrate on street and road courses.

That created opportunities for Karam and Daly.

“We were very impressed with Sage’s steady progression throughout the Toronto race weekend and his willingness to learn and adapt,” said Carlin Team Principal Trevor Carlin. “The fact that he hadn’t been on a street course since 2015 and was still able to come right out of the gate confident and constantly improving every session was extremely impressive.

“The SmartStop Self Storage Chevrolet looked great out on track and their group has been a pleasure to work with, so we couldn’t be more pleased to have them back this weekend in Iowa. Sage has done really well in Iowa in the past, so hopefully we can use his experience and our past success at Iowa Speedway to come away with a good result for the team and our partners at SmartStop Self Storage.”

The Iowa 300 at Iowa Speedway will take place on Saturday, July 20th at 7:15 pm ET and will be televised on NBCSN.