I dare you to try not to smile around Robert Wickens.
The Canadian driver practically beams positivity around the pit lane at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Wickens and many of his Bryan Herta Autosport (BHA) teammates are here at the famous high-speed circuit to provide support and guidance as the amateurs (this writer included) hustle the road-going Hyundai Elantra N and Kona N around the GP track. We’re also mere days away from a big race weekend, with IMSA and the Michelin Pilot Challenge returning to CTMP for the first time since 2019. BHA contests a pack of Elantra TCRs in the MPC, with Wickens sharing number 33 driving duties with fellow Canadian Mark Wilkins.
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There’s an added layer of significance for the 33-year-old, however, who has returned to Mosport for the first time since 2009. “I grew up racing here. Not on CTMP, but actually on the kart track,” says Wickens, referring to the Mosport Karting Centre just east of where we’re sitting. As kids during race weekends, he and his friends would sneak through the woods between the the Driver Development Track and the GP circuit, catching a glimpse of countryman Ron Fellows qualifying for an IMSA event. Fast-forward to 2006 and Wickens would clinch his first car championship here in Formula BMW. Fellows is now the man in charge at CTMP, and while the track has evolved since Wickens was a “young buck” (his own words), it’s still important to him. “I just love it here,” he beams, “every single time you cross the border, it’s just … refreshing. It’s always home.”
Other things have changed, too. “Well … I’m in a wheelchair now. Elephant in the room,” Wickens says with a laugh. The smiling delivery and playful sense of humor are at odds with the horrific 2018 IndyCar crash, the one that left Wickens paralyzed. He talks of the ensuing 10 months in the hospital, where he spent many nights wondering what his racing return would look like. “I didn’t know if I was going to return to IndyCar, I didn’t know if I was going to have to start off in go-karts again. No one knows where this is going to go,” Wickens recollects.
In came Bryan Herta Autosport. The squad already had three consecutive Michelin Pilot Challenge championships in the bag by 2021, not to mention an IndyCar team. A deal came together shortly before the start of the season, with just enough time to get a car ready for the season-opener at Daytona in January. For Wickens, returning to racing was surreal, yet it came with the challenge of expectations meeting reality.
“I thought, y’know, I’ll have countless laps of practice and testing, make the hand control system to the nth-degree perfect for me,” says Wickens. “But it was just unrealistic. The cost of running race cars is not going down in price,” he laughs. He expands on the unique challenges facing the team in the Roar Before the 24, the official test week before Daytona proper. Two days of practice might sound like a good start, but the car is shared with a teammate, effectively cutting time in half. Weather plays a huge role, too. “There was one day where I only did six laps the whole test, because the weather got really bad,” explains Wickens. “It didn’t really make sense driving, and just different circumstances. The whole day passed.”
But this is the same man who earned IndyCar’s 2018 Rookie of the Year status after just 12 races. Wickens’ persistence, the same determination that got him back behind the wheel after that awful crash, got him up to speed that same weekend.
“Mark did a great job, we led for a bit, we had a chance to win, but we had to settle for third in the end,” recalls Wickens. “It was still an amazing achievement, it was such a great day, too. All that hard work over the years of rehab, and getting back to it, and trying to get stronger and regain muscle function, and then to get back into a race car and be on the podium in the first race, it was a pretty good day.”
Wickens’ positive attitude is infectious. The grace and and humility with which he tells his story, a story of resilience and dedication, is inspiring enough on its own. Yet what additional words does the man have for others who might be facing their own hurdles?
“It’s tough, y’know? Everyone has their own struggles, whether they make them public or not,” says Wickens. He has long believed in the importance of sports psychology even prior to his accident; he’s been working with the same sports psychologist since. He acknowledges that “it’s not easy to be positive,” but he’s a firm believer that positivity leads to a positive outcome. “Everyone has their dark days, and when you have those dark days, it’s not weak to seek help,” admits Wickens, who adds that one of the earliest decisions he made post-accident was to see therapists in addition to his sports psychologist. The physical damage from the accident was well-documented, but it wasn’t the only focus during recovery. “The mind is a powerful tool,” says Wickens,”and if your mind’s not healthy, you’re basically not giving yourself any chance to succeed.”
Wickens acknowledges the support system he has, and considers himself fortunate for it. “Between my wife, the racing community, everyone else involved, there was always people there I could lean on, and I was able to use that.” Strength is measured in many ways, and for Wickens, one of them includes accepting the assistance from others. His final bit of advice:”That’s definitely, for me, that’s what I would tell anyone going through their struggles: you don’t have to do it alone. There’s always people there who are willing to help.”
As we talked that late June afternoon, there was an undercurrent of anxious excitement. I could have chalked it up to pre-race nerves, but there was a whole other adventure Wickens was about to embark on. He and his wife Karli were expecting their first son any day then, and sure enough, young Wesley was born on, appropriately enough, Canada Day. Wickens had travelled home to be with his family for that big event, and then swung back up to CTMP for the race, where he and Wilkins scored another win, ahead of teammates Michael Lewis and Taylor Hagler. No matter if he follows his dad’s Nomex-clad lead or not, Wesley will no doubt have a fantastic support system of his own.