Nearly four years after a life-threatening crash, Canadian IndyCar driver Robert Wickens will return to racing at Daytona International Speedway on January 28.
Toronto-based Guelph racer and Mark Wilkins will compete in the No. 33 Hyundai Elantra N TCR in the season opener of the Michelin Pilot Challenge, a four-hour endurance event that kicks off the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona weekend.
The car will be fitted with Wickens hand controls that can be disabled while Wilkins is behind the wheel.
The Canadians drive for Hyundai Motor North America in a team of Bryan Herta Autosport. Herta, a veteran of IndyCar and sports car racing, was keen to sign Wickens after the driver, who had been paralyzed since the IndyCar crash in 2018, showed he hadn’t lost his sense of racing or his cockpit skills. He tried out a Hyundai Veloster N TCR on the course in Mid-Ohio last May.
“Today is a monumental day for us as a team and as fans of Robert Wickens,” Herta said in a press release. “We have followed Robert’s rehabilitation and marveled at his determination and dedication, along with his many, many fans. To now announce that he will be making his professional motorsport return in one of our Hyundai Elantra N TCR cars is truly incredible. We thank Hyundai for their tremendous support and for helping to build a road for Robert to get back to where he belongs.”
A former Formula 1 test driver and winner of the German Touring Car Series, Wickens was a 2018 IndyCar rookie and took the series by storm. He won pole and led all but two laps in his first race, scoring four podium finishes plus Indy 500 rookie of the year honors in his first 12 starts.
The next race, in Pocono, Pa., changed his life forever. On the seventh lap, his car jammed the wheels with another and he was thrown into a fence. The crash literally broke every bone in his body and prevented him from moving below his waist.
Since then, Wickens’ persistence and persistence has led to breakthroughs with relentless regimens of physical rehabilitation and therapy, which are continued on a daily basis and are followed by many fans on social media. Wickens and his team of therapists and trainers have become pioneers in developing technology and treatment methods for spinal cord injury.
“I’ve spent many nights thinking and dreaming about this moment, and with the support of Bryan Herta and Hyundai it will all come true,” said Wickens. “I am more hungry now than before my accident to compete for the wins again. I’m really looking forward to being part of the entire Bryan Herta Autosport team and finally getting my first taste of the Hyundai Elantra N TCR.”
At a news conference Friday, Wickens said his recovery had “virtually flattened out. I’m not regaining muscle function, so unfortunately it looks like I’ll be in a (wheel) chair for the rest of my life… as long as modern medicine and science stays where she is.
“It’s a great life. I was able to get a lot of function back. I can stand with support and take a few steps with support. But in terms of leaving the chair permanently, I don’t think that’s in my pipeline at the moment.”
When he got injured, he rode for Arrow-McLaren SP. The team then said there would always be a car for him when he was ready to resume his career. Wickens said on Friday that he is still with the team: “I also have to thank them for giving them this opportunity. They know I’m a racer at the end of the day.”
Wickens and Wilkins both said they would also like to race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville this year when, despite COVID-19, the series returns north of the border. Wickens noted that he got injured in the race right after the Honda Indy in Toronto, and from his perspective that race was the highlight of his year: “The Canadian fans are just amazing.”
He said he doubted he would race in the Indy 500 anytime soon, but there are other challenges – in other cars, in other series – to tackle.
“It has been a long, winding and difficult road thus far and the journey is not over,” Wickets said on social media later on Friday. “But luckily we can hit the road with a little more speed! Let’s go win now.”