(via Toronto Sun) – He stood on the podium wearing a smile as wide as the Canadian flag he was draped in.
Guelph, Ont., native Robert Wickens, a first-year driver in North America’s top Indycar series, had just completed a remarkable feat, finishing third in his debut hometown Honda Indy Toronto, just ahead of his good friend, teammate and fellow Canuck James Hinchcliffe.
Wickens’ electrifying performance last July came on the heels of a successful decade of racing in Europe, and seemed to officially signal the rookie driver’s arrival on the Indy scene, if claiming the pole in the season-opening race at St. Petersburg or winning Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year honours hadn’t already done so.
A year earlier, Wickens was on the grounds of Exhibition Place in street clothes, cheering on his childhood buddy Hinchcliffe. Now he was spraying champagne as part of the winners’ circle.
“I wasn’t expecting to be here a year later, but life is a crazy thing and it’s hard to predict the future,” Wickens said in his post-race news conference last summer.
How poignant those words would prove to be.
Just more than a month after that memorable Toronto race, having climbed to sixth place in the championship standings, Wickens’ world was forever changed.
Racing side-by-side with American Ryan Hunter-Reay on the back straight into Turn 2 at Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway, the two touched wheels and Wickens’ car was ultimately launched into the catchfencing, shattering upon impact and leaving Wickens in almost as many pieces.
The Wickens family released a statement the first week of September detailing the series of injuries the driver sustained: Thoracic spinal fracture, spinal cord injury, neck fracture, tibia and fibula fractures in both legs, fractures in both hands, fractured right forearm, fractured elbow, four fractured ribs and pulmonary contusion.
It was a near-fatal crash, but the sentiment immediately shared by those who know him best in the racing community was that, if anyone had the required fortitude to recover from those injuries, it was Wickens. He has proved his colleagues right, regularly posting updates through various social media channels updating his recovery status. In November of 2018, Wickens posted a video of him walking a few steps with machine assistance. In January, another video was published showing Wickens riding a spin bike.
The next public step might be the most emotional of all.
Earlier this week, the 30-year-old revealed he will drive a parade lap with his fiancee Karli Woods seated next to him at this weekend’s Indy race in Toronto, driving a Acura NSX fitted with special hand controls provided by Arrow, the title sponsor of the same Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team that is reserving his No. 6 Honda open for Wickens, should he ever achieve his stated goal of returning to racing in the NTT IndyCar Series.
“I get to basically be pole position for the race, which is a blast,” said Wickens, who is undergoing an intense rehabilitation program in Colorado. “I can’t wait to get a helmet on and go around in an amazing car.”
To say Wickens’ road to recovery has been inspirational would be the mightiest of understatements, as his dogged determination continues to invigorate those who know him well and complete strangers alike.
“We’ve been right there with him every step of the way. He’s been an inspiration to so many people and he continues to surprise and impress me every day,” said Hinchcliffe, who himself overcame a near-fatal crash during a practice run at the 2015 Indy 500. “It’s been incredible to see Robbie’s progress.”
Young Indy driver Zach Veach first met Wickens during testing sessions one week prior to the horrifying crash and within seconds of meeting the Canadian concluded that “this guy is just a genuinely really good person.”
“I just absolutely love the guy. I have absolutely so much respect for him. As a driver, he came in and he was kicking everyone’s butt his first year and you admire that,” Veach said. “But I respect the hell out of him for the person that he is right now. He’s going through a very difficult thing and he hasn’t let it change who he is as a person. He still has that drive, he has that motivation to get back in the car and at the same time he’s still wishing all his competitors the best of luck every weekend, which isn’t easy, I’d imagine.”
The parade lap is certain to be an emotional moment for Wickens and his family, for fellow drivers and for fans. For a short moment at least, Wickens will back where he is most at home: On the race track.
When Robert Wickens drives a parade lap using special hand controls in an Acura NSX at the Honda Indy Toronto, it will be made possible by some interesting innovations.
It’s not the first time Arrow Electronics and Schmidt Peterson have teamed to come up with a custom ride. In 2014, they built a custom Chevrolet Corvette Stingray for team co-owner and quadriplegic Sam Schmidt. That car was controlled by head movement, voice commands, and by mouth/sip puff actions.
Wickens, from Guelph, Ont., finished third in his debut Honda Indy Toronto last July before a serious crash a month later left him fighting to regain use of his legs.
“I know he’s really excited to get to come home. Finishing on the podium last year was such a highlight for him,” said teammate and friend James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, Ont. “I know he’s excited to come back and see the city and see everybody. He’s going to be swamped. He’s going to be a busy guy, for sure, but I think he’s really looking forward to seeing all the fans and giving something back to all the people that have been so supportive of him the last little while.”