ST. PETERSBURG, Florida -- During the first practice session Friday morning, Robert Wickens found himself in a familiar yet unfamiliar place. He was at a racetrack, but he wasn’t in a car. Instead, he was in the pits, on what he calls “the smart side of the wall,” watching his teammates’ monitors and listening to radio conversations between engineers and drivers.
As a crowd of fans and reporters gathered nearby, his team’s public relations associates helped fans who wanted photos but couldn’t get close enough to take them. One by one, fans handed their phones to the associates, who held them over the crowd surrounding Wickens and snapped away.
The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg isn’t really what it seems this time around. It’s not just another street race or just another NTT IndyCar Series season opener, not by any means. This time, it’s the backdrop for a story about a racer’s heartrending comeback and what it means to a sport and its fans. And what their support means to him.
A year ago at this time, Wickens was preparing for his first race with the series. From the first practice session, he made a statement. Then he won the pole position, then led 69 laps of the 110-lap race and nearly won it. The statement was this: He was going to be fast, he was going to win races, and he was going to contend for championships.
For a time, that statement looked solid. Wickens finished among the top five in seven of the next 12 races, working his way into the top six in the standings. But in August, he was involved in a ferocious crash, his airborne car slashing violently into the catch fence at Pocono Raceway. His injuries were severe: a thoracic spinal fracture, a spinal cord injury, a neck fracture, fractures to tibia and fibula in both legs, fractures in both hands, a fractured right forearm, a fractured elbow, four fractured ribs and a pulmonary contusion.
After a long period of recovery, Wickens went public with his rehabilitation, posting videos that went viral on social media. First, he stood. Then, he walked with electronic aids. Then, he walked without them. Two weeks ago, he danced with his fiancée, Karli Woods, in a Twitter post that received more than 47,000 likes and was shared more than 5,000 times.
Yesterday was 6 months since my accident. I’ve known I could do this for a week or so, but I wanted to surprise @itsKarliWoods ! One of my goals through this recovery is to dance at our wedding in September. This was a massive confidence boost that my goal could become a reality. pic.twitter.com/uLljFZ37XP
On Thursday, Wickens posted a video showing him walking up the stairs to a plane en route to the race. As of Friday afternoon, almost 500 people had commented.
Off to St.Pete! I love trying new things! There was no accessible way onto the jet so we tried waking up the stairs! Got it first try... #teamwork #spinalcordrecovery #SCI #FirestoneGP pic.twitter.com/ISLGtHoRyO
Inspiration, in many ways, is a two-way street.
“I still don’t know what the full effect of the support has been like,” Wickens said Friday, his first visit to a racetrack since he was injured. “I haven’t been home to Indianapolis since that day. I’ve heard through Karli and the team that there are cases and cases of mail waiting for us to open. Honestly, the outreach has been fantastic.”
In part because of that response, Wickens has set goals. He wants to continue racing, perhaps in a car with hand controls. His team’s co-owner, Sam Schmidt, a former racer who was paralyzed in a crash in 2000, is open to the idea. Wickens’ No. 6 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda is being held for his return.
“There have been so many remarkable drivers that have succeeded with hand controls,” Wickens said. “It makes me believe that regardless of how my progression goes, I will be in a race car again. It’s just a matter of which car.”
Back in the pits, the interviews have ended, the crowd lightens. Mario Andretti approaches from behind. Wickens turns, smiles broadly and shakes his hand. They talk for a few minutes before Wickens has to depart for a press conference. He propels his wheelchair through the crowd as Karli joins him. Fans notice, shouting Wickens’ name and applauding while taking photos.
Colton Herta rides alongside on a scooter, smiling and chatting. A crowd of professional photographers backpedals in front of Wickens, now flanked by an entourage of friends and fans. Finally, Wickens reaches the press conference, where he’s asked a complicated and difficult question: Why? As in, “Why would you want to race again?”
The answer isn’t as complicated as it may seem.
“It’s all I know,” Wickens said. “That’s the biggest thing. From such a young age, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I told my parents when I was 9 or 10 that I wanted to be a race-car driver. They kind of laughed at me. They told me (later) that they were in bed that night saying, ‘Our kid wants to be a race-car driver.’ It was this unachievable thing that I wanted to do. It was like telling him I wanted to be the first man to go to Mars.”
But he did it. As a kid in suburban Toronto, Wickens and his buddy James Hinchcliffe raced karts together, dreaming of becoming big-time racers. Through hard work and skill and fate, they made it. Once they made it, they ended up on the same team. They joked about it, called themselves the “Eh Team,” turning the unlikelihood of it all into a running Canadian comedy routine.
“Since we were kids, James and I dreamed of both being professional racing drivers,” Wickens said in October 2017 during the announcement that he was joining Arrow SPM. “We went our separate ways for a bit. I went to Europe and James pursued the North American route. The fact that we can meet up again 15 years later is pretty crazy.”
Wickens achieved the unachievable. He went to Mars, and he did it with wit and grace. Now, with the achievement interrupted, his fellow drivers are encouraging him to achieve it again.
“They’re right there behind me, motivating me and reassuring me that I can do it,” Wickens said. “Honestly, when those drivers reach out to you, you want to do it even more. That’s the bigger thing. I want to finish this journey not just for myself, but for the whole motorsports community. I don’t want to fall short in any way.”
Wickens plans to remain in the Arrow SPM pits throughout the weekend for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NTT P1 Award qualifying begins at 2:30 p.m. ET Saturday and airs live on NBCSN and INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold. The season-opening race is Sunday, with NBCSN (12:30 p.m.) and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network (1 p.m.) offering live coverage.