Robert Wickens may not be able to currently race an IndyCar, but it hasn’t stopped him from helping his team out from the sidelines.
Ahead of Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, the Guelph, Ont., native is still playing a big part for his Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team.
“He’s able to observe so much,” said James Hinchcliffe, a longtime friend and teammate. “He picks up some of the smallest things that even engineers miss just by watching the video feed during the sessions, by watching the timing and scoring.”
Wickens has been limited to a wheelchair since a crash last August at Pocono Raceway left him paralyzed from the chest down.
The 30-year-old was attempting to pass Ryan Hunter-Reay when the wheels on the two cars touched. Hunter-Reay’s car went into the wall while Wickens’s car went airborne into the steel fence and spun several times before landing.
Wickens suffered a thoracic spinal fracture, spinal cord injury, neck fracture, tibia and fibula fractures to both legs, fractures in both hands, fractured right forearm, fractured elbow, four fractured ribs and a pulmonary contusion.
Hinchcliffe says the last year has been trying but he’s been holding up well.
“Honestly, a lot of it is just seeing how well Rob’s doing through it all,” he says. “He’s one of the most stubborn guys I’ve ever known and I knew from Day 1 that nothing was going to keep him down and I think he’s showing the rest of the world that.”
Through a spokeswoman, Wickens declined to be interviewed for this story.
But he has been detailing his progress along the way through social media as he tries to regain the ability to walk. Wickens’s spinal cord injury was incomplete and there’s a chance the nerves could find their way back into his legs.
Some of his posts include him starting to walk, pushing weights, doing ovals with his wheelchair and squats.
Wickens has expressed a desire to race again and also have at least one dance during his September wedding with Karli Woods.
In a March interview with Sportsnet, Wickens said he sees his injury as just a setback and not a career ender. He believes hand controls will allow him to race again and said he’s fortunate to be involved in a professional sport which allows him to do so.
As his recovery continues, he has helped new teammate Marcus Ericsson get accustomed to the transition from Formula 1 to IndyCar.
Wickens had a successful racing career in Europe before being persuaded by Hinchcliffe to join the North American circuit. The Arrow Schmidt Petterson Motorsports team left a car open for him for when he’s ready to return, but hired Ericsson as a full-time driver from Sauber in the meantime.
Ericsson says the two talk a lot and calls Wickens both clever and helpful.
“Robbie went through a very similar thing as me coming from a lot of years in Europe, coming to the series,” Ericsson says. “So that’s been very helpful to chat with him about different things especially before I was doing my first oval test.”
Wickens was having an impressive rookie season before his crash and qualified 18th for last year’s Indy 500. He finished the race ninth and even led for two laps.
Whatever advice he gave Ericcson, it worked. The Swede qualified 13th for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, but it was a different story for Hinchcliffe.
The Oakville, Ont., native, who didn’t qualify for last year’s race, crashed on his first qualifying attempt last Saturday. His team managed to get a backup car ready quickly, but he still wasn’t able to be one of the fastest 30 drivers.
In what IndyCar has dubbed the “last row shootout,” Hinchcliffe had one more shot to make the final row and squeezed into the 32nd of 33 available spots.
Hinchcliffe says he and Wickens have been talking about racing for 25 years and calls him a huge asset at the racetrack.
“I’m fully confident that he’s going to get into a race car again one day.
“He’s one of the most stubborn guys I’ve ever known and I knew from Day 1 that nothing was going to keep him down and I think he’s showing the rest of the world that.”