Arrow McLaren SP driver coach Robert Wickens returned to the cockpit of a racing car on Tuesday as he got behind the wheel of a specially modified Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai Veloctor N TCR which is raced in the IMSA Pilot Challenge by paralyzed racing driver Michael Johnson. Wickens, who rose up through the ranks of the DTM in Europe before his friend and former teammate, James Hinchcliffe persuaded him to join the NTT IndyCar Series.
Wickens immediately made his mark in the series scoring a pole position on his race debut for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports at the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg in 2018.
The highly-rated Canadian went on to score his first IndyCar Series podium at Phoenix coming home in second place behind race winner Josef Newgarden, he also scored a podium at the Indy GP coming home in third place and also took a brilliant third-place finish at his home race in Toronto and followed that up with a second at the very next race in Mid-Ohio.
Wickens’ 2018 rookie season was cut short by a horrifying crash at Pocono Raceway that left him with a thoracic spinal fracture, a fractured neck, tibia, and fibula fractures to both legs, fractures in both hands, a fractured right forearm, fractured elbow, a concussion, and four fractured ribs. And that wasn’t the worst to it. For while those broken bones would heal in time, Wickens also suffered a bruised spine that made it doubtful the Canadian would ever walk again, let alone drive a race car.
Today, however, after 20 months of rehabilitation and extremely hard work and determination, Wickens drove the Hyundai around the Mid-Ohio Sportcar course.
The car is equipped with a hand-controlled throttle, brake and clutch for Johnson, a former national motorcycle champion who was paralyzed from the mid-chest down some years ago and subsequently began racing sports cars. He scored a historic IMSA win at Lime Rock Park three years ago and, along with co-driver Stephen Simpson, earned a top-three finish in the Pilot Challenge race at Daytona in January.
Johnson operates the throttle and brake via metal rings mounted behind and in front of the steering wheel, while the clutch is what looks like a standard emergency brake to the right of the seat. He changes gears with paddle shifts on the left and right of the steering wheel.
Michael Johnson says:
“I’m very busy, for sure. “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.”
Once I was taken out of my medically-induced coma, ‘When can I race again?’ was definitely on my short list of questions. “I started in go-karts when I was 7 and my family sacrificed so much for me. … Everyone put so much effort into me and my career, that you can’t just let it get taken away that easily. This injury has been just a setback, not necessarily a career ender.
“The car’s still in one piece. “But 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!” Wickens added. “But it felt good to be back in a race car.”