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.”

Graham Rahal’s “Weighty Issue”

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens
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MONTEREY, California – Graham Rahal admits that he can’t wait until the day he doesn’t have to worry about his weight. Being a 6-foot-2, big-boned individual can have its advantages, but not when it comes to fitting into an IndyCar.

That is why the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal has begun a body shaping therapy known as “Sculpting” that uses laser to trim away body fat.

“Honestly, it is no secret, I’m not shy about this, that I’ve struggled with my weight,” the 201-pound Rahal told a group of reporters during INDYCAR’s Open Test at Laguna Seca on Thursday. “I can guarantee you that from a strength perspective and a stamina perspective, there’s very few guys out here that can keep up with me. I’m just not a super skinny build. It’s never been my thing.

“I’ve tried. We’ve kind of looked around, there was some mutual interest from them to look into trying this, see if it works. I’ll be honest. I was always very skeptical of the stuff. Where I’m at, I’ve done one treatment. I can’t even tell you today if it’s something that really works or not.”

That led Rahal to try out the sculpting process that was invented by a doctor who found it with swelling in kid’s cheeks. The “Sculpture” process uses a laser that kills the fatty cells.

“I’ve done one treatment,” Rahal said. “It takes a long time, I think. It’s going to take multiple I think to get there.”

Watch Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on NBC at 3 p.m.

A race driver needs to be thin, yet very strong to have the physical strength and stamina to compete at a high level in the race car. When it comes to the NTT IndyCar Series, it’s even more important because of the size of the cars and tight cockpit.

Additionally, the extra weight can impact the performance of the race car. The lighter the driver, the less weight inside of the car and that can determine. In INDYCAR, drivers are weighed and for the lighter weight drivers, lead weight is added to the car to meet a requirement.

But in Rahal’s case, the lead weight ballast has to be reduced and that sometimes throws off the center of gravity in the car.

“The facts are it’s not going to work if you don’t work out, too, and eat well,” Rahal said. “It doesn’t do anything. But earlier this year, man, I had given up drinking completely for three, four months. I was working out every day, twice a day on most occasions. I went to a nutritionist, doing everything. I literally was not losing an ounce. It was the most frustrating period of time for me.

“I am the biggest guy here. Is it ever going to be equal for me? No matter what these guys talk about with driver ballast, it’s a whole different thing, where my center of gravity is, so on…”

That is what led the 30-year-old driver from Ohio to study the “Sculpting” procedure. He realizes he is never going to have the metabolism of some of the thinner drivers, but he needs to maintain a weight that minimizes his disadvantage.

“It is a challenge,” he admitted. “Ricky Taylor and Helio Castroneves (on Penske Team Acura in IMSA) weigh 60 pounds less than me or something. There is no ballast there. That’s a big swing, a lot of weight to be carrying around.

“We have to try anything we can. If you’re going to be serious, try to find the performance advantage and the edge, you’ve got to look outside of the box.

It is something new for me. But the fight I guess against being an ultra-skinny guy…

“I fly home with most of these guys after races, I see most of these guys a lot of times, they’re sitting there eating In-N-Out Burger, whatever else. Literally I cannot do it. If I do it, it immediately reflects for me. These guys you see them the next weekend, they’re like this big.

“It’s like, (bleep), it’s not my build.”

Because of Rahal’s height and size, he chose to step away from the endurance races for Team Penske in IMSA at the end of last season. He was replaced at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring by fellow IndyCar driver Alexander Rossi.

Rahal complained that the steering wheel actually hit his legs inside of the Acura, making it difficult for him to drive on the challenging road courses. Since that time, Acura Team Penske has moved the steering column up by a few inches and it no longer impacts a driver the size of Rahal.

For the IMSA season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on October 12, Rahal will be back in the Team Penske Acura.

“Back in the (Team Penske) shop three weeks ago, I could actually turn the steering wheel, which I was shocked about,” Rahal said. “My head touched the roof, whatever, I’m used to that. Physically being able to steer, which I now should be able to do better.

“So I’m excited about it. It’s another great opportunity obviously with Penske. But more importantly for me is Acura, Honda. It’s a great thing to be back in.

“But that wasn’t a weight thing. It’s purely size. They just don’t build cars for guys my size. I used to talk to J.W. (Justin Wilson) about that. It’s the facts of life. Even the GT cars. You would think a GT car would be big. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a GT car, I was comfortable in either. They’re built for small guys. That’s the way it goes.”

Rahal is taller than his father, Bobby, who is also his IndyCar team owner along with David Letterman and Michael Lanigan.

“I blame my dad,” Rahal said. “I do. You can tell him I said that. I told him, ‘It’s a genetic thing. I got good genes in some ways.’

“I told my wife this the other day, I’m very excited for someday when my career ends just to have a ‘Dad Bod,’ be able to let go for a minute, see how things turn out, because this is getting a little bit exhausting.

“We’re going to stay committed through the winter. I try my hardest every year, but I never tried harder this year to be thin. I weigh about the same as last year, but it took so much effort to get there, I just have to think outside the box.”