Robert Wickens looks toward a return to racing: ‘I feel like I’m just as hungry as ever’

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He isn’t behind the wheel – yet – but Robert Wickens remains a presence in the NTT IndyCar Series this season.

Wickens, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a wicked crash Aug. 19, 2018 at Pocono Raceway, has attended all four IndyCar races so far this season.

“Luckily, Arrow McLaren SP still welcomes me with open arms, and they allow me to stay in the loop,” he told NBC Sports in an interview last week. “Even though I’m not driving the car, just the fact that I’m present at the racetrack, and they allow me to give my input and feedback on helping the drivers and doing anything I can within the team, and it’s a great thing for me mentally.

“I think it’s really important to still pursue those passions that you have in your life. If anyone could understand that, I think it’s (team co-owner) Sam Schmidt (who was paralyzed in a 2001 crash). That I can go to the races and still smell the smells I’ve loved my whole life, it’s a lot of fun. … Having the ability to stay relevant in an industry that I love so much is really important to me, and I’m really happy to be a part of it.”

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Wickens has drawn praise from Arrow McLaren drivers for the mentoring he has provided in his consultant-type role, notably being credited by new first-time winner Pato O’Ward for his advice and guidance.

“I’m glad they listened,” Wickens said with a laugh. “Honestly, I have a great opportunity right now to be a part of a great team. This year, we have Patricio O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, last year Pato and Oliver Askew, both of them great, great drivers.

“There’s something special about seeing good drivers at work. And the fact that I can witness it firsthand is great, but on the selfish side, it actually makes me hungrier than ever to get back into a race car, because I’m learning new parts of a race team that I never knew as a driver. And I think once I can get back behind the wheel full time, I’ll probably be a slightly different driver because of it.”

Wickens took a major step toward that goal last week at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Robert Wickens climbs into the No. 54 Universal Coating Hyundai Veloster N TCR of Bryan Herta Autosport (LAT/USA).

In an opportunity that started through a casual conversation with Bryan Herta and grew over a few months, the Canadian donned a firesuit and helmet for the first time in nearly three years to get behind the wheel of a race car.

He made 62 laps around the 13-turn, 2.258-mile road course (which will play host Saturday to the IMSA WeatherTech Championship), using hand controls mounted on the steering wheel to control the acceleration and braking of the No. 54 Veloster N TCR with Bryan Herta Autosport.

Wickens, 32, said the experience was “massive” in his journey toward returning to an elite level of motorsports.

“Everything is a learning process,” he said. “I definitely believe with due time, I can be just as good as I was before my accident. I think mentally I haven’t lost anything. I feel like I’m just as hungry as ever.

“I think the hardest pill to swallow about my accident is now I’m creeping up on three years of where I’m really at the prime of my career and the prime of my ability. And I’d love nothing more to get the opportunity to get back behind the wheel and actually race again someday.”

Robert Wickens talks with Bryan Herta during the May 4 track day at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (LAT/USA).

One of the primary hurdles will be learning to squeeze peak performance from a race car without his feet. Though he has made countless laps in a race car, “the only similar thing is I’ve been to Mid-Ohio before” Wickens said about the BHA track day at Mid-Ohio.

He drove by pushing a ring on the front of the wheel to control the throttle and pulling another ring on the back of the wheel to operate the brake.

With the guidance of Michael Johnson, a paralyzed driver who delivered Hyundai’s first podium with co-driver Stephen Simpson in the Michelin Pilot Challenge at Daytona, Wickens quickly adapted but said the learning curve was steep because “it’s a lot, mentally.

The modified steering wheel in the No. 54 Hyundai Veloster N TCR tested by Robert Wickens at Mid-Ohio (LAT/USA).

“Until it becomes second nature, it’s definitely a challenge,” he said. “The biggest takeaway so far is when you’re driving a normal car, you don’t really have to worry about where you’re positioning your hands. But if you’re braking into a left-hand corner or right-hand corner or having to downshift, everything is changing what you’re doing with your hands.

“It’s still a six-speed sequential gearbox, so you still have to upshift and downshift, so you need to make sure if you’re on the gas to have your left hand on it so you can upshift and vice versa when you’re braking. You need your left hand free and depending on the corner, you’re pre-planning what you’re going to do with your hands.

“I think eventually that will become second nature, where I won’t have to be thinking the whole straightaway on what I’m about to do next. But so far it’s been a massive learning curve, but I’m really enjoying the opportunity.”

Robert Wickens return
Robert Wickens was pleased that his day in the Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai Veloster N TCR could be the first step back to resuming his full-time racing career that was put on pause by an IndyCar accident in 2018 (Michael Levitt/LAT/USA).

Wickens also had to adjust to front-wheel drive (which he said wasn’t as difficult because the Veloster “is an amazing little car”). In between stints, he pored over telemetry data with Johnson, Simpson (who helped set up the car with a shakedown run) and BHA engineers, who helped the coaching on where to find improvements (“braking is the low-hanging fruit”).

Though he lacked literal firsthand experience, Wickens had some exposure to hand controls from watching Alex Zanardi race in DTM and sports cars. The Italian driver was among the first to call Wickens after Pocono.

“I had the great honor of speaking with Alex, and he told me that you want everything on the steering wheel,” said Wickens, who raced DTM from 2012-17 before joining IndyCar.

“He had a brake lever that was off the steering wheel on the side, and he said he could never get that final tenth that he needed to match his teammates because he was driving basically with one hand all the time. That really hit home with me, and Michael Johnson already had a system with everything up on the steering wheel. So far, it’s been going really well.”

Before racing the 2019 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Zanardi compared the use of hand controls at speed with Jimi Hendrix’s mastery of complicated chord progressions.

“I definitely don’t have the finger dexterity that I think I should, but so far we’re getting the job done,” Wickens said with a laugh. “Maybe once this is all said and done, I might try to learn the guitar, but I don’t think my wife would be happy about it.”


Robert Wickens return
Robert Wickens shares a laugh with his wife, Karli, during his Hyundai Veloster track day at Mid-Ohio (LAT/USA).
Robert Wickens return
(LAT/USA)

Wickens’ wife, Karli, attended the Mid-Ohio session in another sign that she “has always had my back” through a recovery that is as taxing on his mental health as it is physically daunting.

The Pocono accident left him with a thoracic spinal fracture, spinal cord injury, neck fracture, tibia and fibula fractures to both legs, fractures in both hands, a fractured right forearm, fractured elbow, a concussion, four fractured ribs and a pulmonary contusion.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Wickens’ rehabilitation had consisted of 4-5 hours for five days a week since 2018.

“Yeah, 2020 was a crazy year for a lot of people, but it taught me that I was probably working way too hard for too long,” he said. “Once this pandemic hit, gyms shut down, and everything kind of went isolated at home. I actually got a lot stronger the first two weeks of not doing any exercise. And that really hit home that I actually gave my body the chance to heal and to rebuild and to have the ability to come back stronger. So even though I wasn’t training as hard as I was prior, I haven’t had any setbacks, which is fantastic.”

When he returned to attend his first IndyCar race in the 2019 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener, Wickens was regaining muscle feeling and was optimistic about walking again. But he also cautioned you never know when the progress stops in healing from a spinal injury.

Does he feel as if he still is progressing?

“It’s funny, a couple of years down the road, and I still can’t really answer that question for you,” he said. “It’s hard to say if I’ve plateaued, if I’ve regained everything that I’m going to regain.

“I know that as of late, I haven’t really found any new muscle functions. But that being said, everything that I do have, that I have regained, is getting stronger and stronger every day and as I continue to work out and rehab. Who knows where that’s going to lead, but I’d say for the most part, what you see is what you get. I think I’m starting to accept that I’m going to be in a wheelchair for quite a while.”

Robert Wickens return
Robert Wickens exchanges a first bump with Michael Johnson during the Hyundai track day at Mid-Ohio (LAT/USA).

That outlook doesn’t dampen his outlook for racing again, though “I don’t think there’s anything on the horizon at the moment. (Mid-Ohio) is nothing more than simply just a great opportunity that Hyundai and Bryan Herta Autosport presented me.”

There would seem to be multiple options, provided that sponsorship can be secured and some customized tweaks can be made to his hand controls (which are preapproved by each sanctioning body).

Wickens, a former Mercedes driver who had six victories in DTM, remains in regular contact with F1 Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff and also has access to a large racing network from a decade in Europe. He is interested in exploring opportunities in Formula E and sports cars.

Robert Wickens return
(LAT/USA)

Schmidt has promised a No. 6 Dallara-Chevrolet would be available for Wickens if he returned to IndyCar. Wickens also spoke after the Mid-Ohio track day with Arrow McLaren SP team president Taylor Kiel, who said Wednesday that the team would “go to the drawing board with him and help him out in any way we can to see if we can help realize his new dream of getting back in a race car.”

Wickens said in 2019 that his long-term goal was to return to IndyCar but now recognizes adapting hand controls for the series “is quite challenging with the amount of Gs and the speed and everything that the driver has to do on a lap-by-lap basis. It would be quite the undertaking to make a hand-controlled Indy car that could be equally as competitive as a normal Indy car.

“From my own mental side of things, I’d love to close the IndyCar chapter of my life on my own terms. Whether that be returning back full time, if it’s just to do one race, I don’t know.”

And for one magical day at Mid-Ohio, that uncertainty was fine for Wickens.

“Honestly, I don’t have a short-term plan,” he said. “I’m just really living in the moment today. It’s just such an awesome opportunity to drive a Veloster around a racetrack.”

Robert Wickens return
Robert Wickens pilots the No. 54 Hyundai Veloster N TCR at Mid-Ohio (LAT/USA).

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”