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


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

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

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).

2023 SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Seattle: Cooper Webb, Eli Tomac overtake Chase Sexton


Another crash while leading at Seattle dropped Chase Sexton from the top of the NBC SuperMotocross Power Rankings while solid performances by Cooper Webb and Eli Tomac allow them to climb the chart and threaten to make this a two-rider battle with six rounds remaining in the 2023 Monster Energy Supercross season.

SuperMotocross Power Rankings Seattle
Cooper Webb wags his finger at Chase Sexton after winning his heat in Seattle. – Feld Motor Sports

During the race, Webb knew he had ground to make up. Riding behind both Tomac and Sexton early in the Main, he was as far back as fifth on Lap 7 at Seattle. That position would cost him the red plate and give away the advantage he began to build with his first win of the season in Tampa. Sexton is often at his best as he battles from the back and he methodically worked his way through the field. At the end of the feature, he was nearly five seconds off Tomac’s pace, but during the past 45 days, he holds the advantage. A resurgent Tomac that could erase that advantage quickly though.

Tomac struggled in Indianapolis with a neck strain. That contributed to his worst performance of 2023 and his second result outside the top five. He finished third in Detroit two weeks ago, but it was a distant third after finishing off the podium in his heat during that round. In Seattle, it appeared the same thing might happen when Tomac finished third in the prelim behind his two principal competitors Webb and Sexton. The Main was a different story.

Tomac dropped to fourth in the opening laps behind both of his rivals early in the race, but he got around Webb on Lap 2 and kept charging. When Sexton fell to the ground on Lap 11 and dropped to fourth, Tomac was in position to strike. He scored his sixth win of the season to tie James Stewart for second on the all-time wins list. He now shares the red plate with Webb as the rounds wind down.

MORE: Eli Tomac gets rebound win in Seattle

Sexton has the speed, but he lacks the seasoning of Webb and Tomac. He’s pressing hard on every lap and that has bitten him several times this year. Sexton’s mistakes are costing him with a 10th-place finish at Indy, the loss of seven points at Detroit and a fifth in Seattle as the riders he’s battling stood on the podium. No one seriously questions Sexton’s talent or speed, but ultimately the results are what counts.

Justin Barcia is hitting his stride. He advances two positions this week after scoring his fourth consecutive top-five and second podium in that span of races. Barcia finished between sixth and eighth in five consecutive rounds from Anaheim 2 through Arlington, but he’s mostly avoided controversy and that puts him fourth in this week’s SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Seattle.

Jason Anderson had a solid performance in Seattle, but with a fifth-place finish in his heat and fourth in the Main he just keeps losing a little ground to the leaders. The biggest impact to his standing in the NBC Power Rankings is a 10th-place finish in Indianapolis that will take a while to age out of the 45-day formula. He’s tied for fourth in the championship points with Ken Roczen, who sits sixth in the rankings below. It’s important to be the rider “best in class” with Webb, Tomac and Sexton stealing the show.

450 Rankings

Rider Power
1. Cooper Webb 87.77 2 1
2. Eli Tomac 86.23 3 1
3. Chase Sexton 85.77 1 -2
4. Justin Barcia 80.71 6 2
5. Jason Anderson 80.69 4 -1
6. Ken Roczen 80.46 5 -1
7. Aaron Plessinger 75.86 7 0
8. Adam Cianciarulo 71.13 8 0
9. Christian Craig 69.86 9 0
10. Justin Cooper 62.88 10 0
11. Justin Hill 59.86 11 0
12. Dean Wilson 52.86 12 0
13. Josh Hill 49.00 15 2
14. Colt Nichols 48.67 13 -1
15. Shane McElrath 45.62 14 -1
16. Benny Bloss 43.00 16 0
17. Grant Harlan 38.08 20 3
18. Max Miller 37.67 24 6
19. Lane Shaw 36.67 21 2
20. Cade Clason 34.67 19 -1

Supercross 450 Points

The 250 West riders were back in action in Seattle and that gave Jett Lawrence the opportunity to break out of a tie with his brother Hunter Lawrence on the all-time wins list. It also provided Jett the opportunity to take back the top spot in the NBC SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Seattle.

SuperMotocross Power Rankings Seattle
Jett Lawrence regained the top spot overall in the NBC SuperMotocross Power Rankings with a near-perfect race in Seattle. – Feld Motor Sports

Jett has stood on the podium in every race this year with the exception of the second Triple Crown race at Anaheim 2 and that level of perfection gives him bragging rights. Rest assured that while the two brothers have a bond that is unapparelled in motorsports, there is no one they would rather beat. Neither has been particularly successful in Triple Crown rounds this year, however, and Jett could lose his advantage in two weeks in Glendale, Arizona under that format.

Lawrence is now two wins away from capturing the fourth-most wins at this level.

A rivalry is developing between Lawrence and Cameron McAdoo. Tired of losing to the affable Australian, McAdoo pushed the envelope last week in Seattle. He crowded Lawrence in the whoops during their heat race and sent both to the ground. That frustration could bubble over with four rounds remaining. One thing is certain, when these two riders are in proximity on the track, the cameras will be aimed in their direction.

Supercross 250 Points

A little means a lot this season. Finishing second to Lawrence in four of five rounds, RJ Hampshire would be losing ground to the leader no matter what, but an 11th-place finish in the overall at Anaheim 2 places him eighth on the chart below behind two of the 250 West riders and five 250 East competitors.

In the mains, Levi Kitchen has been all over the board with a win, one more top-five, two results on the high side of the single digits and a crash-induced 21st at San Diego. He’s really shown his speed in the heats, however, with a perfect record of top-fives and a win.

Mitchell Oldenburg makes the top five list among West riders with a perfect record of top-10 finishes. He’s heading in the wrong direction, however, falling from ninth overall to 11th after finishing outside the top five in both his heat and the Main last week.

250 Rankings

Rider Power
1. Jett Lawrence – W 90.75 2 1
2. Hunter Lawrence – E 90.43 1 -1
3. Nate Thrasher – E 84.00 3 0
4. Cameron McAdoo – W 80.50 4 0
5. Haiden Deegan – E 78.21 5 0
6. Jeremy Martin – E 78.00 6 0
7. Jordon Smith – E 76.77 7 0
8. RJ Hampshire – W 76.75 10 2
9. Levi Kitchen – W 76.67 8 -1
10. Max Anstie – E 74.43 11 1
11. Mitchell Oldenburg – W 73.67 9 -2
12. Max Vohland – W 72.55 13 1
13. Tom Vialle – E 72.07 12 -1
14. Pierce Brown – W 68.64 19 5
15. Enzo Lopes – W 67.83 17 2
16. Chris Blose – E 67.43 15 -1
17. Chance Hymas – E 67.10 16 -1
18. Michael Mosiman – E 65.80 18 0
19. Stilez Robertson – W 64.45 14 -5
20. Phil Nicoletti – W 59.25 20 0

* The NBC Power Rankings assign 100 points to a Main event winner and 90 points for each Heat and Triple Crown win, (Triple Crown wins are included with heat wins below the rider’s name). The points decrement by a percentage equal to the number of riders in the field until the last place rider in each event receives five points. The Power Ranking is the average of these percentage points over the past 45 days for the 450 class and last 90 days for 250s (because of the split nature of their season).

POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 10 AT SEATTLE: Chase Sexton narrowly leads Cooper Webb
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 7 AT ARLINGTON: Jason Anderson narrowly trails Tomac
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 6 AT OAKLAND: Perfect night keeps Tomac first
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 4 AT HOUSTON: Tomac rebounds from A2 crash, retakes lead
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 3 AT ANAHEIM 2: Consistency makes Ken Roczen king
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 2 AT SAN DIEGO: Roczen moves up, Sexton falls
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 1 AT ANAHEIM 1: Tomac, Jett Lawrence gain an early advantage