Robert Wickens was a welcome sight in the NTT IndyCar Series paddock in St. Petersburg, six months on from the terrible crash at Pocono that ended his spectacular rookie season and left him with spinal injuries. Although the Canadian admitted his road to recovery remains long and challenging, his characteristic determination — and sense of humor — clearly remain undaunted.
“First off, good to see everybody here. It’s nice to be back in a world that I’m familiar with,” Wickens told the media at a press conference after spending the first practice session on Friday pit-side with his Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team. “I’m doing well. Really I am. There’s obviously good days and bad days. Being back at a racetrack makes everything feel a whole lot better, although it’s a little bit strange to be on the far side of the pit wall.
“When you’re driving, you know the engineers are talking and figuring out how to make the car better. When you actually listen on a race weekend of the communication that goes on, it’s intense. I thought I’ll put a headset on, chime in, give some insight every now and then. I struggled to find my space to make my blurb. It’s all a work in progress.”
The same could be said about his path to recovery, Wickens related.
“From my front, I’m getting some stuff back, getting better each day. A long road. You feel like you’re on that road trip — it’s the 100-mile road that’s a straight line the entire time without any scenery, and you’re just working as hard as you can to get to the end.
“We’re getting there, one step at a time. It’s basically all I can say — we’re making progress. The thing with a spinal injury is you never know when that day comes where you won’t progress any more. I think right now we’re trying to utilize every day we can to get as healthy as I can.”
Wickens said he continues to be buoyed by the support and well wishes he’s received from IndyCar’s extended family, and the sport’s fans.
“It’s been amazing. I was expecting a lot of support, but it’s already kind of gone way out of what I expected it would be,” he said. “I mean, heading to the pit lane for the first session, I thought the fans would kind of be more focused on the race cars, like I would have been when I was a fan attending a race. All they seemed to care about was me. Everyone was cheering my name. It’s really cool to see team personnel from other teams just saying it’s great to see me. People [I’ve] never even seen before. Competitor team uniforms, all being really supportive. It goes to show how great the IndyCar community is, how close it is — but then the fans are just fantastic, as well. Everyone is just giving me such an outpouring of support. It’s been fantastic.
“It’s been a motivation piece for me. On those days where I’m just not having the best day in rehab, you feel like you don’t really want to put in the final three hours of your day — but then you just think about the long-term goal of me trying to get back into an Indy car. It’s pretty easy to find that motivation again.”
One of the strongest sources of support Wickens has drawn on is from his team owner Sam Schmidt, a paraplegic himself as the result of an racing accident. Wickens says his advice was key to getting his recuperation program going.
“Sam’s been super helpful throughout the whole thing. I mean, just the fact when the injury happened, he already basically knew the good doctors, the good surgeons. Before I would get to the hospital that I was going to, he already had vetted it for me.
“At the time I wasn’t in a space to recognize. But he was always making sure I would get the best care possible. Nothing dodgy, but everything legally. He just knew so much because of his injury, because of his research and everything he’s done with his paralysis. He’s been to so many rehabilitation hospitals that when that became a reality for me, he knew the ins and outs of every hospital, every rehab facility we were looking at.
“In the end, we came to the conclusion of where we wanted to go. It was kind of a full team decision. It wasn’t just me trusting a doctor that recommended it. I felt like we really made the right choice in the places that we went. Then, moving forward, he has his place in Las Vegas, a facility, which has opened. That could be a very viable option for me once rehab finishes and I still need a place to keep conditioning.
“It’s hard to put in words really what he’s done. I think he did a lot that I still don’t realize, because I was in a state that I wasn’t able to realize what he was doing.”
Although Wickens concedes that doctors still can’t promise that he will be able to achieve his goal of returning to racing, he’s determined to spare no personal effort at maximizing his chances.
“Honestly, the spinal cord injury, every single person is different. I’m working my butt off doing everything I can because my whole philosophy in life is the harder you work, the better results you’ll get. Make sure you’re the hardest-working guy out there and you won’t be beat. That’s been my philosophy from day one of my entire life, how my parents brought me up. That’s my approach today.
“I don’t know if it’s right or wrong. There could be a person beside me with the same spinal cord injury eating fast food and sitting in their hospital bed all day, and they might walk sooner than me! The doctors know I’m working too hard — they’re telling me to rest. By the same token, they’re kind of telling me to keep doing what I’m doing because it’s working. It’s kind of that fine balance of I am doing four to six hours a day, six days a week. It’s tough. I enjoy my day off on Sunday!”
While his long-term prognosis remains unclear, Wickens does feel that his progress has been steady and encouraging…even sexy.
“I think they’ve been more, like, sexy steps. Getting the first muscle flick back in October, whenever that was, was huge, right? But it’s just a little muscle flick. You don’t really notice anything. Then as I was getting a little better, now that I’m getting up on my feet, I think it’s putting into perspective — Oh, my God, he’s standing, then taking steps, kind of getting better.
“They always told me the six- to nine-month, or the six- to 12-month frame is where you’ll see the most progression. I’m kind of right at the beginning of that. Hopefully I didn’t peak too soon. Hopefully I’m still in that prime spot.
“We’re just a little bit over six months post-injury. I am getting a lot of improvement from week-to-week. I don’t think it’s really been escalating. I think it’s been pretty linear. I’ll take the linear progression over one that kind of plateaus, goes up quickly then plateaus again.
“Every week we’re making small improvements. [fiancée] Karli [Woods] and I are documenting everything I can do at the start of each month. It’s been remarkable to read back to see what I was doing February 1 to March 1, January 1. Every month it’s a pretty consistent chunk of new things.”
Meanwhile, Wickens’ focus on a racing return remains “100 percent” no matter where the plateau of recovery levels off.
“The goal is to get back into an Indy car. We won’t know ’til I try it to see if it’s a reality. Apart from that, I mean, there’s been so many remarkable drivers that have succeeded with hand controls in motorsports that it makes me believe that regardless of how my progression goes, I will be in a race car again. Just a matter of which car.”
Where, exactly, does that determination come from?
“It’s all I know. I mean, that’s the biggest thing. From such a young age, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I told my parents when I was like nine or 10 that I want to be a race car driver.
“Everyone told me early on, if you can’t race again, you’re still going to do something great with your life. I’m a hard worker. I know I’m going to land on my feet somewhere. I wasn’t happy with that answer. Like, I don’t want a nine-to-five job hustling somewhere new. I want to hustle as a race car driver. Even if I had to learn something new, like hand controls, I know it’s something I’ll work hard with.
“There’s Billy Whizz [Monger], who is doing a great job with hand controls, Alex Zanardi, the guy to get back into motorsports post-injury. When I look at what he did in Daytona this year, when I look at what he did in DTM last year, as a racer who raced in DTM for so long, great he got a top 10 without even testing.
“Anything is possible. I know I’m a hard worker, analytical. I think I could get on top of hand controls. My only fear is that I always wanted to get back into racing as I left off, on the same level that I left off. I don’t want to be just a driver in the field. I want to be one competing to win like I was when I went out. That’s kind of the main thing for me.”
That, and being able to dance with Karli at their wedding…something that Wickens joked might not have been much easier even before his accident.
“Even what I did before was hard to call dancing,” he jibed. “Even if I stand perfectly straight, I can wiggle my upper body a little bit. I don’t know, what defines dancing? That’s the big thing.
“I mean, if we can just both stand there and awkwardly stare at each other for three minutes, I think that would be pretty good, as well…”
Originally Published on racer.com