ALL PHOTOS COURTESY MICHAEL LEVITT, BRYAN HERTA AUTOSPORT
Paralysis from a racing accident could color the rest of your lifetime if motorsport is the calling you answered. That hasn’t been the case for Alex Zanardi, Michael Johnson and Robert Wickens, all of whom have suffered serious accidents (in Zanardi’s case definitely more than one) as they worked their crafts.
Alex Zanardi came back to racing with the help of BMW Motorsport, who actively produced a race car that would rely on hand controls for the Italian, who raced in the Rolex 24 at Daytona two years ago, despite the loss of both legs in a 2001 INDYCAR accident. In Johnson’s case, the former motorcycle champion star who was paralyzed from mid-chest several years ago, the driver scored an historic IMSA win at Lime Rock Park three years ago and, today, co-drives with Stephen Simpson in IMSA’s Michelin Pilot Challenge for Bryan Herta Autosport (BHA).
On “May the Fourth be with you” day, May 4th, Robert Wickens, injured during his rookie NTT IndyCar Series season in a freak accident on Pocono Raceway’s tri-oval in 2018, returned to a racing car cockpit at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and lapped the track, driving the No. 54 BHA Hyundai Veloster N TCR, set up for Johnson with hand controls.
This race car is equipped with two custom metal rings attached to the steering wheel, connected to the brake pedals by a series of jointed rods that are specifically tailored to the Hyundai Veloster N. These rings allow the driver to accelerate, brake, downshift and conduct steering inputs and corrections on each lap. On the rear of the steering wheel is a ring pulled with a finger that activates braking. On the front side is another ring that activates throttle with the thumbs. The top corners on both sides of the steering wheel house gear selectors: upshift on the right, downshift to the left.
Johnson explained the controls to Wickens prior to the Canadian’s laps. “I’m very busy for sure,” Johnson said. “My hands are moving a lot, but I’m used to it. That’s going to be a big thing for Robert to get used to: how all the controls work; how to synchronize everything” and have his actions be instinctive.
Wickens was ready. Once he emerged from coma the racer after his bad crash, all Wickens was thinking about was getting back into a car. It’s what racers do. “I believe these are the defining moments in my life,” he said of this experience and so many others he’s had on his road to recovery. He has limited use of his legs and feet thanks to constant and continuing rehab in Indianapolis.
“At 32,” Wickens said, “I have so much more of my life to live and I intend to live it to its fullest. That’s what really drove me in my rehab phase, which is still happening every day. I just knew that if I didn’t go all-in on my recovery, I’d be kicking myself for the rest of my life wondering, ‘What if I’d tried harder? What if i didn’t do this? Or did do that’”
Since the COVID-era of racing resumed in the NTT IndyCar Series last year, Wickens has been a consultant to his team, Arrow McLaren SP. He renewed friendships in the INDYCAR paddock, including those with team co-owners Herta and business partner George Steinbrenner IV. When Johnson joined Herta’s IMSA team this season, it opened the door for Wickens’ opportunity to get into a race car again.
“Being a racer and a down-to-earth guy, Bryan realized this was a really cool opportunity,” Wickens continued. “So he and George reached out to see if I would like them to consider asking Michael Johnson if i could borrow his precious car for a few laps. Then the ball started rolling, but it’s all down to generosity on many different fronts that made this happen.”
That Wickens’ laps occurred just two days after teammate Pato O’Ward earned his first INDYCAR win in the second Texas Motor Speedway race on Sunday afternoon was kismet. But he still had quite a few hurdles to overcome, including weather. On Tuesday morning, Wickens’ designated date to take his laps at Mid-Ohio, thunderstorms inundated the track early morning. Afterwards, overcast and semi-wet conditions left the 2.258-mile, 13 corner track damp. Johnson acknowledged that was one of his larger hurdles when he began racing sports cars: getting the feel of the track while dealing with his disability.
Co-driver Stephen Simpson took the Hyundai Veloster N out for recon laps and system checks, bedding the brakes before Wickens was installed in the coupe. And then Robert Wickens, 21 months removed from a race car, took to the track, first tentatively and then, lap after lap growing quicker, going deeper and gaining confidence.
After a dozen laps, he returned to the garages behind pit road and got out of the car. “The car’s still in one piece,” he said with sly humor. “It felt good. There’s a lot going on: first time with hand controls, first time with this car and on a damp track. It gave me a much greater appreciation for what Michael Johnson has been able to achieve. I tried not to be a hero, hard as that was, but it felt good to be back in the race car.
“Working with the team, dialing the car in, gaining speed and improving the handling, it was awesome. The Veloster N TCR was a blast to drive. Once I got comfortable in the car, I began to understand what I need for my own accessibility to move forward,” Wickens concluded.
Herta realized, even before installing Wickens in this Pilot Challenge race car, that there was much to be gained by having the INDYCAR driver on-site. “We’re fortunate to be in a position to provide Robert a chance to get back in a race car. We knew, with his expertise and ability, we’d benefit from his valuable feedback. He did a great job getting up to speed quickly and we look forward,” Herta added cryptically, “to being a part of the next phase in his journey back to racing.”