Bryan Herta: Robert Wickens’ return ‘one of most important things we’ve done in racing’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — Bryan Herta cold-called Robert Wickens nearly a year ago about returning to a race car for the first time after a devastating accident at Pocono Raceway.

It was because Herta believed that Wickens still could drive at a championship level despite being robbed of the ability to walk since the Aug. 19, 2018 crash when the Canadian suffered a thoracic spinal fracture, neck fracture, fractures to both legs and hands, a fractured right forearm, fractured elbow, a concussion, four fractured ribs and a pulmonary contusion.

But hiring Wickens to drive a Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai Elantra N TCR in the Michelin Pilot Challenge this season also stemmed from a sense of empowerment in the type of racing situation often marked by feeling powerless.

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Herta opened a Thursday news conference with Wickens at Daytona International Speedway by describing the venture as “personally one of the most important things we’ve done in racing.”

When asked to elaborate, the veteran of the IndyCar series who also called the 2011 Indy 500 winner of Dan Wheldon (and now handles strategy for his son, Colton Herta) took a long pause.

“Well, I love this sport; I love competing in it,” Bryan Herta said. “I was there in Pocono in the pit lane when Robbie had his accident. I remember the emotions you go through being there.

“And I’ve been through loss in motorsport. I’ve seen pain and people around you experience it. And I’ve never been in a position to do anything or to help. But this time we were. So for me, it just feels personal.”

Qualifying seventh for Friday’s race (live at 1:35 p.m. ET on Peacock) was something Wickens took personally as he returned to racing competition. Sporadic rain and a guessing game at conditions around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course left Wickens on a wet-weather tire when dry would have been optimum.

But during the four-hour race Friday, he and co-driver Mark Wilkins scored a podium in their first outing together.

Robert Wickens smiles during a news conference Thursday at Daytona (IMSA).

Overall, Wickens said Thursday that he has enjoyed operating a car at speed for the first time with a specially modified wheel that features hand controls for accelerating and braking.

“It’s just been plug and play, and we’ve been able to focus on myself getting up to speed,” he said. “A lot of long conversations with Mark Wilkins. I keep asking him hundreds of questions a day. And thankfully, he’s patient because he’s answering all of them very kindly.

“I’m learning as I go. I feel right now I’m about 70% to where I want to be with the car. I was hoping for a lot more in that qualifying session, but there’s still a lot to play for (in the race).”

Wickens is using a steering wheel identical to paralyzed BHA teammate Michael Johnson, who laid the foundation for BHA’s approach to hand controls.

“It really would have been impossible without Michael Johnson racing,” Herta said. “And the relationship there a year ago in these garages was where the conversation started about offering Robbie a chance to come drive the car.

“Driving with hand controls is something Michael Johnson has done in various years for many years now, and the basic system they started and developed around Michael and adapted to various cars over years, that is the basis of evolution of system we use this year. I don’t know without all the groundwork they’d done that we would have been able to be in a position to have Robert drive one of our cars.”

Wickens made his debut with the team in a track day last May at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course but didn’t drive again until a shakedown test last week (though he made thousands of laps in simulation).

It’s been part of big month in which he also announced that he would become a father this year.

“There’s a lot of times I didn’t think I’d have a year like this,” he said. “I always knew I wanted to get back into a race car. I felt like I was trying for the better part of two years to find an opportunity like Bryan gave me.

“Obviously on a personal front, starting a family was always high on myself and Karli’s list. We were trying for a while, and thankfully it was successful just after the IndyCar season ended, and here we are.

“It’s kind of a perfect 2022.”

He gave much of the credit to Herta and his phone call out of the blue “bluntly asking if I’d ever want to drive a race car again, just to know where my thoughts were.

“It’s humbling for sure but also goes to show the kind of person Bryan Herta is,” Wickens said. “here were many people in my life closer to me than what Bryan was at the time that could have offered me the chance to get behind the wheel of the race car, and then for one reason or another, it never came to fruition.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for me to get back into a race car and compete again. I’ve been pretty clear I want to win. I’m not here just for a media tour to tick a box and move on with my life. I want to win a championship for myself. I want to win a championship for Bryan and Hyundai and BHA. I couldn’t be in a better position with a teammate that’s won a championship and team that’s won three in a row. If we don’t win it, it’s going to look badly on us. We’ll have to keep plugging away.”

Said Herta: “I love that a lot of people might expect he’s just happy to be back, and in his first weekend, he’s pissed off to qualify seventh. That’s how I know he’s going to do great things.”