A year ago, Robert (Robbie) Wickens of Guelph was the toast of Toronto. In his first year of IndyCar racing, he’d finished third in his home race, the Honda Indy Toronto.
Wickens, 30, is back in Toronto this weekend for the 33rd renewal of the summertime classic, held each July (with one or two exceptions) at Exhibition Place. But he won’t be driving an Indy car this time out. Instead, the 2018 Rookie-of-the-Year will be wheeling an Acura NSX fitted out with hand controls that he’ll drive on the parade lap before the pace lap leading up to the start of Sunday’s big race.
One of the finest Canadian racing drivers ever to strap into a car, Wickens suffered grievous injuries in a crash last August at Pocono International Raceway in Pennsylvania that left him unable to use his legs.
A stream of Twitter messages since has kept IndyCar fans up-to-date on progress he’s made while convalescing in a rehab facility in Denver, Colo., and back home again in Indiana. His good humour and optimistic approach to his treatment and recovery have been inspiring.
Wickens, who continues to be a member of the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team (co-owner Sam Schmidt has said there will be a car ready and waiting for the time Wickens is able to resume his career), met the media Friday and thanked his sponsor and his team for making possible the opportunity on Sunday.
Honda has provided the Acura NSX while Arrow created the modifications to allow Wickens, without the use of his legs, to get back on track once again.
“I’ve had this dream for so long to get back, and this was the target to get the car ready for Toronto,” said Wickens during that special press conference Friday. “And it was only fitting that it’s the Honda Indy of Toronto, and it’s my home race. It was kind of the perfect fit.”
Wickens will not be driving out of the box when he pulls onto the racing circuit Sunday. He ran laps for 90 minutes at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park Wednesday and then practiced for a half-hour on the Honda Indy track Thursday.
“It’s amazing,” Wickens said. “I was able to get a couple of practice laps in yesterday (Thursday), and it put a huge smile on my face. Just to think how fortunate I am to have such great partners around me to make this happen. Racing is my dream, it’s my passion, it’s all I want to do. And to have a company like Arrow to be so hands-on building the hand controls and then a company like Honda that somehow trusts me with a very expensive car is – I still don’t know why.
“But I actually bent a wheel already . . . ”
Wickens, tongue-in-cheek, suggested he might be looking for a bit more than the one parade lap when a reporter asked whether he would pull into the pits, as per the agreement with IndyCar. “I will neither confirm nor deny,” Wickens said, smiling. “I’m trying to figure out what that penalty would be if I just kept going.”
Wickens was joined at the press conference by Honda Performance Development President Ted Klaus and Arrow Electronics Chairman, President and CEO Mike Long. They see the parade lap as the first phase of Wickens’ comeback.
“There was an interesting piece of this that I think everybody in the world was wondering is will Robert go fast again,” Long said. “I will tell you I don’t think there’s any question. We wanted to start this now with Robert so we can be a part of his rehab together with our friends at Honda and get Robbie back to racing because that’s what he wants, and we’re going to be there to support that effort all the way.”
Added Klaus: “But I do hope that as Robbie really enjoys re-learning how to control the car with his hands, I’m sure he’s going to realize he’s just using different parts of his brain and his body . . . ”
Wickens said he feels “like I’m being portrayed as this extremely strong and inspirational person but behind every good person is a great team.” Regarding his rehab in the last 11 months, he said:
“It’s just been a whirlwind. It’s been a big eye-opener for me, this whole injury. I have a whole new perspective on life, which I guess there’s good to take away from that. But the biggest thing for me is when I was in rehab every single day, it was the support that I had from my racing partners, from my family, from Karli (Woods, his fiancée, who will go along for the ride on Sunday), from all the fans, from everyone that kind of was getting me there to the gym the next day.
“And I was always – when I was at rehab, I was just patient 31265, and then you get to become friends with these patients and you hear their story, and then like I get back to my place at the end of the day and I kind of think like, ‘Man, I’m so lucky that I have such great support everywhere.’ If I’m having a bad day, just all my fans can just come and pick me up where everyone else can easily get into this big spiral and get into some depression and everything.”
The Honda Indy Toronto, an 85-lap race on the downtown city streets at Exhibition Place, will be televised live Sunday on Rogers Sportsnet, starting at 3 p.m. The event is Round 11 of the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series season.
In practice Friday – last practice and qualifying is scheduled for Saturday – Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenaud set the pace, with Felix Rosenqvist second fastest and Sebastien Bourdais third; Wickens’s teammate and best friend, James Hinchcliffe, was 11th out of 22, Third Arrows-SPM racer, Marcus Ericcson, was 22nd and last.
With a file from IndyCar Series Staff