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Back Where He Belongs: Wickens Expected to Return to Victory Lane

The Bryan Herta Hyundai Driver Never Wavered in Believing He Could Get Back to the Top Step of the Podium

By Holly Cain

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – It was legitimately difficult to tell who was smiling bigger, who high-fived harder, who was more thrilled in the feel-good moments immediately following the checkered flag in Saturday’s IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race at Watkins Glen International.

The recipient in those extended congratulatory exchanges, Robert Wickens, may have enjoyed being caught in the excitement, but the truth is Wickens absolutely expected to win the race. It’s the mind frame that made him such an exceptional talent.

And it is indicative of the strength he’s summoned – the belief in himself – to race fulltime again this season after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in a 2018 IndyCar race.

While Wickens’ humility would seem to say it was just another day at work, others appreciate the rare courage, fortitude and focus it took to get to this point again – raising trophies, spraying champagne and celebrating on a victory podium. It was such a popular Touring Car (TCR) class victory, even the other competitors were happy for Wickens and his co-driver of the No. 33 Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Hyundai Elantra N TCR, fellow Canadian Mark Wilkins.

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“There were a couple more hugs than I think there would have been normally, it was just great,’’ Wickens, 33, said with a smile. “I never think I’m an inspirational person but, to come here and to drive – I’m just trying to get back to what I love to do and Bryan Herta Autosport and Hyundai are giving me that opportunity.

“It’s reassuring to myself that I can still win and compete and challenge even though I’m driving with hand controls. It’s, hopefully, just the beginning of what’s to come.

“Really, Mark doesn’t get enough credit for the amount of work he puts into this organization, to this crew. He has so much experience, so much knowledge. I lean on him so much with any idea. I ask him a million questions all the time. He always has patience and answers them all thoroughly. And I think together we’re kind of building something good, so hopefully this is the start of good things to come.’’

And, frankly, it is the fruition of what Wickens expected.

“I think anytime I compete, I compete with the intent to win,’’ he said. “The most important thing is, when Bryan Herta and the people at Bryan Herta Autosport gave me this opportunity to race, we knew deep down we could get there and compete for race wins.

“Internally, I wanted to hit the ground running, I wanted to win (the season opener at) Daytona, I wanted to qualify on pole, have the fast lap, do the whole thing, right? That wasn’t reality, then from there, it was getting it done when we were in good opportunities to score good points, if it was just a top-five that day or a podium, whatever the case may be.

“So, we just kept honest to ourselves and kept working internally to make sure we were getting the best out of our packages as possible. So, to finally get the win in the fifth race of the year – I’ll be honest, I was hoping it would have come earlier – but five races in isn’t bad.’’

The Wickens/Wilkins driving pair earned the lofty expectations honestly – a third-place showing in their Daytona debut was indicative of their potential. And the Watkins Glen victory comes at an ideal time as they head home this weekend to compete in front of the friendly crowd at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.

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That taste of victory champagne at Watkins Glen and the confidence gained has only stoked this team’s competitive energy. All the reason Wickens was earning praise as an IndyCar rookie before his accident is evident now – and there is a whole new level of respect for the difficult path he has taken to be so competitive again.

And as you would expect, it’s just stoked the pair’s expectations.

“Daytona went well, then some tough races, but we always knew we had the pace, the speed and the people to make it happen,’’ said Wilkins, the 2019 Michelin Pilot Challenge TCR champion. “It takes a little time, but we’re here and I think this will be that sort of kickstart of momentum to have a great balance of the season for us.”

And while Wickens may have hoisted the trophy Saturday, everyone was feeling the triumph.

“One hundred percent,’’ Wickens said of his confidence in winning this year. “I didn’t know how long it would take but I knew I didn’t forget how to drive. It was just about finding the right opportunity to show it was still possible.

“Deep down, I always thought I would return to racing quicker than I did, but I also underestimated what goes into adapting a race car,’’ Wickens added. “I thought when I was ready, I’d call someone and then people would come running with it – and that’s not the case. We really had to hustle to get it done.

“And here we go.’’