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Robert Wickens marks return to racing with podium finish in Daytona

Robert Wickens answers questions during a news conference for the Rolex 24 hour auto race at Daytona International Speedway on Jan. 27, 2022, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Robert Wickens worked for more than three years to get back into a racecar and resume the driving career cut short during his rookie IndyCar season.

His reward was a podium finish at Daytona International Speedway.

And a face full of champagne.

Wickens and Mark Wilkins teamed for a third-place finish Friday in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge touring car class season opener. It was the first race for Wickens since he suffered a spinal cord injury in 2018 in a spectacular crash at Pocono.

Wickens was in his wheelchair for the podium celebration when the champagne was passed out for the customary celebratory spray. But he’d locked the brakes — “rookie move,” he said — and was using both hands to hold his own bottle. So he couldn’t move out of the way when the other five drivers on the podium moved in for the attack.

“I was so excited to spray champagne, I just felt like celebrating,” Wickens said. “But then I realized ‘I can’t move because both my hands are on the champagne bottle’ and that’s not fair. But I wasn’t complaining. And I got quite a bit.”

The Canadian was enjoying a breakout rookie IndyCar season before his crash in the 14th race of 2018. Although he can stand with some support, he can’t walk and uses a wheelchair. Bryan Herta Autosport made his comeback possible with a custom hand control system that Wickens uses for accelerating and braking.

The team uses the same system in a second car for paralyzed driver Michael Johnson and Herta was determined to make Wickens a race car driver again. Herta called hiring Wickens fulltime for this year’s Michelin Pilot Challenge series “for me personally, one of the most important things we’ve done in racing.”

Wickens qualified the car seventh — disappointing for his personal expectations — and started Friday’s four-hour race. His goal was to either gain position or maintain seventh on the start — “I didn’t want to lose spots,” he said — and drove the car as high as third during his two-hour stint behind the wheel.

The car was in contention for the victory at one point but ultimately fell to third overall. Roy Block and Tim Lewis won the TCR class for KMW Motorsports, while defending class champions Michael Lewis and Taylor Hagler were second in another one of Herta’s cars.

The end result was something Wickens never thought possible during so much of his recovery.

“I think it’s just the beginning,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity that we can still improve and become stronger.”

Wickens, who remains a consultant for Arrow McLaren SP in IndyCar, said the support he’s received since his accident has been humbling. He also credited his wife, Karli, for helping him get back into a car. The couple announced last week they are expecting their first child.

“Anytime I’ve been feeling down on myself … it gives me goosebumps every time I stroll through a paddock and people just give me a thumbs-up,” he said. “Everyone takes the time to come say ‘Hi’ and it means a lot to me. I never became a race car driver expecting that would happen.

“I drive racecars because I love that feeling of pushing something to the absolute limit and just competing at a very high level. And I happened to be quite good at it at a young age. I always loved every aspect of the sport. But I never really thought of what people would think of me and it’s been a really fun ride so far.”

Robert Wickens to resume his career 3 years after near-fatal crash

PREVIOUS COVERAGE on January 27, 2022

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Robert Wickens spent too many days mourning the career he lost following his near-fatal 2018 crash at Pocono.

The Canadian’s life was upended 14 races into his rookie IndyCar season. Wickens had been the top rookie in the Indianapolis 500 just three months before and was engaged to be married. His spinal cord injury put his life on hold.

The path back to his new normal has tested him to his limits, but Wickens can see the checkered flag. He’ll race for the first time in over three years Friday at Daytona International Speedway in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge 4-hour endurance race for Bryan Herta Autosport.

Wickens uses a wheelchair — he can stand with some support — and he’s accepted that he’ll likely never fully walk again. But this weekend still marks a monumental fresh start as Wickens begins a full season of racing with Herta. Last week, he announced he’s expecting his first child with his wife, Karli, who has been by his side since his Pocono crash.

“There’s a lot of times that I didn’t think I’d have a year like this. I always knew I wanted to get back in a racecar and I felt like I was trying for the better part of two years to find an opportunity like what Bryan gave me,” Wickens said Thursday. “On a personal front, starting a family was always high on myself and Karli’s list. We were trying for awhile and thankfully it was successful just after the IndyCar season ended and here we are — I’m going to be a father this year, I’m racing again, it’s kind of a perfect 2022.”

Wickens is very matter-of-fact about the racing part of his comeback. He qualified the car Thursday on tires not suited for the damp track conditions and was disappointed with the seventh-place result.

The emotion comes from Herta, who has six entries in Friday’s touring car race, including two starting on the front row. BHA is the three-time defending Michelin Pilot Challenge champion and yet the team owner said returning Wickens to competition was “for me personally, one of the most important things we’ve done in racing.”

Herta is a former IndyCar driver and was the winning Indianapolis 500 team owner for both Dan Wheldon and Alexander Rossi. He’s the IndyCar strategist for his 21-year-old son, Colton, a championship contender. His accomplishments are stellar and yet he paused for a long moment Thursday to reflect on what it meant to him to have Wickens driving one of his cars.

“I love this sport, I love competing in it, I was there in Pocono, in pit lane when Robbie had his accident,” Herta said. “I remember the emotions you go through being there and I’ve been through loss in motorsports. I’ve seen the pain the people around you have experienced. But I’ve never been in a position to do anything or help.

“This time we were. And so for me, it just feels personal.”

Wickens will team with Mark Wilkins, a fellow Canadian, in the No. 33 Hyundai Elantra N TCR for the entire season. He uses a custom hand control system designed by BHA technical director David Brown and development technician Jonathan Gormley for accelerating and braking.

Learning the system began last May when Herta brought Wickens to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for a test. He turned 62 laps that day and sparked enough interest for Herta to pull a full-time team together for Wickens.

BHA could field a car for Wickens because the team also fields one for Michael Johnson, a paralyzed driver who also uses hand controls. Wickens and Johnson conferred over the winter and based on Wickens’ feedback from the Mid-Ohio test, the two landed on identical hand control systems.

“We found opportunities to give the driver more feeling,” Wickens said. “For Michael it is a new adjustment. For me, it is just learning something new. I think it’s a good step forward and good evolution from what Michael was using the last few years.”

Herta said it would “it would have been impossible” to give Wickens this opportunity if Johnson had not already built a program inside the team.

“Without all of the work that had already been done, I don’t know that we would have been able to be in a position to have Robert driving one of our cars,” Herta said.

Herta has no doubt Wickens can win races and contend for the championship. Wickens won’t settle for anything less.

“I felt I was forced to leave in 2018 at almost the peak of my career. I felt great. Never felt fitter, never felt stronger,” Wickens said. “I felt like I was driving the best I’ve ever driven. I want to hit the ground running and continue where I left off. At least challenge for a victory and podium.”