Robert Wickens used hand controls in an IMSA sports car race last weekend for his first win since A spinal cord injury in 2018 temporarily ended his racing career.
In England, former IndyCar driver Sam Schmidt completed the hill climb at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in a custom McLaren 720S Spider. The car was modified by Arrow Electronics, the main sponsor of the Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar team, so that Schmidt, a quadriplegic since an accident in 2000, could use a straw-like “swallow and puff” device to accelerate and brake.
Also at Goodwood, motorcycle racer Wayne Rainey rode the same bike that won his last championship in 1992. Rainey was paralyzed from the chest down in a 1993 accident, and the modifications to his bike include pseudo training wheels that allow him to ride using only his hands.
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“It was a great weekend for disability awareness,” said Wickens.
Schmidt and Rainey were part of previous projects where they modified vehicles that they could pilot. Wickens’ situation is completely different in that he returned to competition this year after thinking his career was over following his mid-air IndyCar crash in Pocono nearly four years ago.
He drives a Hyundai Elantra N-TCR for Bryan Herta Autosport in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge which has been fitted with hand controls. He shares the car with co-driver Mark Wilkins, a compatriot from Canada who ended Saturday’s win at Watkins Glen.
The duo made their debut in January with a podium finish at the Rolex 24 in Daytona.
“It’s like riding a bike, but it’s a whole different bike, I think that’s the best way to describe it,” Wickens said of handheld racing. “Racing has been my life since I was 7 years old. It’s something I worked very hard to get to the level I was at when I raced at IndyCar in 2018.
“And after the accident, I just knew I had to work harder to get back there. I didn’t know what it would look like for me. I didn’t know if I could go straight back to IndyCar or if I would have to start in go-karts like you do as a kid. The whole recovery was just a little unknown.”
Having to be physically carried out of the car during the driver change, he has yet to get behind the wheel to cross the finish line and complete a race.
Herta told The Associated Press that could change as early as Saturday when Wickens races at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park as part of the IMSA race weekend. Sunday’s Chevrolet Grand Prix in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship will air Sunday at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock.
Herta said it’s quicker for Wickens to start a race because it’s more efficient to get him out of the car than to carry him over the pit wall and get him on the seat during the driver change.
“Robbie will finish races this year, he can do it,” said Herta. “He might even do it this weekend.”
Wickens is just thrilled to be racing again and enjoying one of the greatest times of his life at 33. Herta and Hyundai are letting him race again, and Wickens and his wife Karli are expecting their first child in the next two weeks.
He’s racing in Canada for the first time since 2018 when he finished third on the streets of downtown Toronto. Two races later he suffered his spinal cord injury.
“It just feels great. I’ve always been happiest behind the wheel of a race car,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a stressful race with a lot of PR and a lot of press around it. The second you put your helmet on and close that door it’s just peace to me and I can finally just go in the zone and get in the race and it’s been my happy place for most of my life.
“Life is great, sometimes it almost feels like living in a dream.”