Paralyzed Driver Will Use Hand Controls in Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai Elantra N TCR
By Jeff Olson
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For the first time in almost three and a half years, Robert Wickens will return to racing.
Wickens, paralyzed in an IndyCar crash at Pocono Raceway in August 2018, will team with fellow Canadian Mark Wilkins in the No. 33 Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai Elantra N TCR for the 2022 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge season.
It’s been a long, winding, and difficult road to this point and the journey is not over, but thankful we’ll be able to move down the road with a bit more speed!
Now, let’s go win. pic.twitter.com/hoPyoorJTO
— Robert Wickens (@robertwickens) January 14, 2022
The car, equipped with hand controls, will open the season Jan. 28 with the BMW M Endurance Challenge, a four-hour race at Daytona International Speedway the day before the 60th Rolex 24 At Daytona.
“There’s a lot of emotions,” Wilkins said Friday afternoon during a livestreamed news conference. “… A lot of times during my recovery I thought it was possible (and then) thought it wasn’t going to be possible. It took a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication, but I wouldn’t be here without the support of a lot of really good people.”
In May 2021, Wickens tested a BHA Hyundai Veloster N TCR equipped with hand controls, the first time he’d been in a race car since the crash. Wickens’ injuries included a thoracic spinal fracture, a spinal cord injury, a neck fracture, tibia and fibula fractures to both legs and fractures in both hands.
Wickens has documented his recovery on social media, generating encouraging responses from thousands of followers. The possibility of a return to racing was his underlying motivation for countless hours of rehab and training.
“I know I’m a competitor,” Wickens said. “If I don’t give myself a level of competition, I felt like I wouldn’t possibly work hard enough to get to the level where I am today. I don’t put myself in any category above anybody else who’s recovering from an injury or a setback in their life, but it’s been quite the ride. Here we are, and I’m happy to be here.”
A former Formula 1 test driver, Wickens joined the IndyCar Series in 2018. He led all but two laps of his first race, was named the Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis 500 and finished on the podium in four races.
At Pocono, Wickens’ car went airborne and struck the catchfence. After an extensive hospitalization, Wickens began a lengthy rehabilitation process. He is able to stand with assistance, but he said Friday his progress has plateaued.
“I’m not regaining any more muscle function,” Wickens said. “Unfortunately, it looks like I’ll be in a chair for the remainder of my life as long as modern medicine and science stays where it is. But it’s a great life. I was able to regain a lot of function. I can stand with support and take a couple of steps with support. But in terms of leaving the chair permanently, I don’t think that’s in my pipeline right now.”
The car is equipped with custom hand controls similar to those used by Michael Johnson, also a paralyzed driver who used hand controls in the No. 54 BHA Veloster N TCR in Michelin Pilot Challenge races last season. It was Johnson’s car that Wickens tested last year at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. BHA technical director David Brown and development technician Jonathan Gormley designed the hand control system.
“Hand controls are an open book as far as what you need, and every driver is different,” Wickens said. “We’re trying to make small improvements and trying to make it a little more comfortable and more consistent.”
The system uses a metal ring on the steering wheel connected to the brake pedal by a series of rods. Throttle and shift paddles also are located on the steering wheel, allowing Wickens to accelerate, brake, shift and steer with his hands.
The Michelin Pilot Challenge runs as companion events to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and drivers occasionally compete in both series. Wickens indicated he would be interested in advancing to the WeatherTech Championship or return to IndyCars if circumstances made it possible.
For now, Wickens wants to prove to himself that he can race again.
“Once we can tick that box, I think nothing is out of the question,” he said. “It would be awesome to race in the Indy 500. At the same time, I’m interested in exploring new avenues. I’ve never really done any sports car driving. Racing at the highest levels of IMSA in the WeatherTech series would be amazing.”
The season kicks off Jan. 21 with the Roar Before the Rolex 24, a three-day test session at Daytona that concludes with qualifying races. The BMW M Endurance Challenge streams live starting at 1:35 p.m. ET Friday, Jan. 28 on Peacock.