This is not unusual behavior for a professional racer. Their job, after all, is to win. They spend their lives aiming for the top. Robert Wickens, 33, is not a typical racer, though. This is his second race after a 2018 IndyCar Pocono crash caused a T4 spinal cord injury and left him with paraplegia. In the years since, he’s regained limited use of his legs and now races for Bryan Herta Autosport in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge series. Wickens hopes that this is the first step on a path to racing in a top-tier series, where he can challenge for a title.
“My big thing is, ‘What do I do after this?'” he says. “I don’t know how to word it where I’m very appreciative [for this opportunity] . . . but I feel like at the moment, for my own closure of my career, and my life, I need to return to that elite level of motorsport.”
In person, Wickens is soft-spoken, but his arrival in the U.S. wasn’t quiet. He put his car on pole at the 2018 IndyCar season opener in St. Petersburg, his first race in the series, and likely would’ve won were he not spun by an opportunistic Alexander Rossi making a dive into Turn 1 with two laps to go. Four podiums followed, plus rookie of the year honors at the Indy 500. That his racing career was put on pause during one of the greatest rookie seasons of any driver anywhere was particularly cruel.
This publication profiled Wickens in 2019, while he was still at a rehab facility, aiming to regain full use of his legs. He can now walk with the aid of a walker, but as far as racing goes, he’s focused on hand controls. While anyone can buy a set of hand controls for a road car, you can’t do the same for a race car. You need to develop them on your own, which is exactly what fellow racer Michael Johnson did after becoming paraplegic as a result of a teenage motocross accident. Johnson first developed hand controls for open-wheel cars in IndyCar feeder series, then for sports/touring cars. Johnson joined BHA last year and, with his hand controls, opened the door for Wickens, who uses Johnson’s system.
“It started at Daytona last year,” says Herta, an IndyCar star turned team owner.
“We were there, and it was our first race with Michael Johnson, and we had just adapted one of our Velosters to use his hand-control system. We’re sitting around talking, and Sean Jones, my business partner, brought up Robert Wickens, and, ‘Hey, we should reach out to Robert and see if he’s interested in trying the car out.'”
The test came together at a damp Mid-Ohio last summer. If you’ve ever driven Mid-Ohio in the rain, you know just how treacherous the place is, ready to spit you off into the grass in an instant, yet Wickens proved quickly he was still the racer he was before the crash. “He just showed that fire right away,” says teammate Mark Wilkins.