Robert Wickens makes racing return: ‘I’m just excited to drive something’

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This Saturday will mark an important milestone in the recovery efforts of Robert Wickens.

For the first time since the summer of 2018, the popular Canadian will race against his fellow NTT IndyCar Series competitors – virtually at least – in the second race of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge at virtual Barber Motorsports Park (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Wickens’ entry in the virtual race is another positive step in his recovery after he sustained a spinal cord injury in an Aug. 19, 2018 crash at Pocono Raceway.

WATCH: IndyCar iRacing Challenge, 2:30 p.m. ET Saturday, NBCSN or streaming here

“I’m just excited to drive something,” Wickens told reporters Friday. “Last night was the first time I’ve driven any form of race car since the accident at Pocono. Even though it’s virtual, it still felt pretty good.”

While Wickens is excited to make his first iRacing start, his debut was delayed by a week because he wanted to make sure he had the proper equipment before getting started.

“Simulation was always step No. 1 for me,” Wickens said. “But unfortunately, through one reason or another, it was very challenging to basically do it right. I didn’t want to purchase an Amazon setup and try to learn on that. I wanted to build a good foundation that you can evolve from because I see this as a great training tool for me to make my hand control second nature.”

Wickens withdrew from last week’s event after not receiving the equipment he needed in time. A group of members from the motorsports community headed by Max Papis attempted to overnight Wickens all the necessary equipment, but the package did not arrive at his home until Thursday. He will use a wheel provided by McLaren this weekend.

Regardless, Wickens appreciates the efforts made by Papis and others.

“I think I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but the fact that I have so many people supporting me on my return to this is amazing,” Wickens said. “When Max found out that I was in the market for a steering wheel, he jumped on and just got to work. He actually had already been doing stuff in the background that I wasn’t even aware of. He already had the hardware in his shop. I guess he was just waiting for me to reach out.

“He’s such a good guy. He’s a competitor at heart and although he’s retired from the cockpit, I think he sees his entrepreneurship as a new form of competition. He wants to be the best in the industry and he works hard, and I think he’s doing a great job.”

Wickens admits that with such little time to practice and a temporary wheel, he has a steep learning curve ahead of him. Nonetheless, he views iRacing as an important part of his recovery efforts.

“I always knew that through simulation was going to be the best way to try all the different handbrake configurations or paddle configurations so this is really just step one of 100 to get me back into the NTT IndyCar Series,” Wickens said. 

Some of Wickens’ fellow IndyCar competitors also are happy he will compete in this weekend’s race.

“It’s been great watching his progress,” Will Power said. “I think that like he said, his first step was to get back into a sim. It’s pretty cool that he’s actually able to get on and compete in a competition.”

Graham Rahal, who has been racing go-karts against Wickens since they were 10, also is excited for his return.

“To see his determination, to see his recovery process, to see his mentality and the way he’s thought through this is admirable but is not surprising from him if you’ve known him for a long time,” Rahal said. “I can tell you from going to see him in the hospital pretty early on after the accident that the destination was always there.

“He’s a guy who just from Day One was committed to getting back on his feet and to getting back in a race car. It’s great to have him out here competing with us.”

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994