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.”

American Flat Track puts emphasis on fans in building 2020 schedule

American Flat Track
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American Flat Track put an emphasis on fans and feedback from other series while also acknowledging everything is tentative while hammering out its schedule for the 2020 season.

The 18-race schedule over nine weekends will begin July 17-18 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida, about 20 miles from AFT’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The dirt track motorcycle racing series, which is sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, shares a campus with its sister company, NASCAR, and American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock said the series closely observed how it’s handled races in its return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and also built AFT’s procedures from NASCAR’s post-pandemic playbook of more than 30 pages.

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“I speak personally to the committee within NASCAR that has been put together for the restart, regularly talking to the communications people, general counsel and other relevant operations departments,” Lock told NBCSports.com. “So we’ve derived for Flat Track from NASCAR’s protocols, which I think are entirely consistent with all the other pro sports leagues that are attempting to return.

“Obviously with NASCAR the scale of the business is completely different. There were some times more people involved in the paddock and the race operations for NASCAR than the numbers of people at flat track. Our scale is much smaller, and our venues are generally smaller. So we can get our hands around all of the logistics. I think we’re very confident on that.”

While NASCAR has had just under 1,000 on site for each of its races without fans, Lock said American Flat Track will have between 400 to 500 people, including racers, crews, officials and traveling staff.

But another important difference from NASCAR (which will run at least its first eight races without crowds) is that American Flat Track intends to have fans at its events, though it still is working with public health experts and government officials to determine how many will be allowed and the ways in which they will be positioned (e.g., buffer zones in the grandstands).

Lock said capacity could will be limited to 30-50 percent at some venues.

American Flat Track will suspend its fan track walk, rider autograph sessions for the rest of the season, distribute masks at the gates and also ban paper tickets and cash for concessions and merchandise. Some of the best practices were built with input from a “Safe to Race Task Force” that includes members from various motorcycle racing sanctioning bodies (including Supercross and motocross).

There also will be limitations on corporate hospitality and VIP access and movement.

“I think everything the fans will see will be unusual,” Lock said. “Everything at the moment is unusual. We will roll out processes that are entirely consistent with the social distancing guidelines that will be in place at the time of the event. So we’re planning for a worst-case scenario. And if things are easier or better by the time we go to a venue, it’s a bonus.”

Lock said the restrictions are worth it because (unlike other racing series) AFT must have fans (even a limited number) for financial viability.

“We took a decision fairly early on in this process that it was neither desirable nor economically viable to run events without fans,” Lock said. “I can think of some big sports like NFL or like NASCAR where a huge chunk of that revenue is derived from broadcast, which means that your decision making as to how you run an event, where you can run an event has a different view than a sport like ours, or even like baseball, for example, that needs fans. Because the business model is so different.”

Broadcast coverage is important to American Flat Track, which added seven annual races over the past five years and can draw as many as 15,000 to its biggest events.

Lock said AFT ended the 2019 season with more than 50,000 viewers for each live event, making it the No. 1 property on FansChoice.TV. This year, the series has moved to TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. “We’re expecting a really strong audience from Day 1, particularly with all this pent-up demand,” Lock said.

NBCSN also will broadcast a one-hour wrap-up of each race (covering heat races and main events).

Because the season is starting three months late, the doubleheader weekends will allow AFT to maintain its schedule length despite losing several venues. And there could be more, Lock said, noting that there still are three TBA tracks.

“There may still be some surprises to come from one venue or another of delay or cancellation,” he said. “But we are intending to run as full a season as possible.”

Here is the American Flat Track schedule for 2020:

July 17-18 (Friday-Saturday): Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Florida

July 31-Aug. 1 (Friday-Saturday):  Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio

Aug. 28-29 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Northeast United States

Sept. 5-6 (Saturday-Sunday): Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois

Sept. 11-12 (Friday-Saturday): Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Sept. 25-26 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Texas

Oct. 2-3 (Friday-Saturday): Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia

Oct. 9-10 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, North Carolina

Oct. 15-16 (Thursday-Friday): AFT season finale, Daytona Beach, Florida