Wickens on driving again: 'I've had this dream for so long'

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Emotional won't even begin to describe it.

Robert Wickens' inspiring, difficult, compelling and poignant recovery from a spinal cord injury will make its way thorough his hometown race this weekend when he leads the field on the parade lap before the Honda Indy Toronto driving a specially modified Acura NSX.

“It's going to be amazing — I don't fully know what to expect because I've obviously never been in that position," Wickens said Friday in discussing the upcoming event. "I've never been one of the cars in the parade lap because I've always been in the race car on the parade lap.

“I've had this dream for so long to get back and this was the target to get the car ready for Toronto. It's only fitting that it's the Honda Indy Toronto — my home race — it was just kind of the perfect fit.”

Getting back behind the wheel of a hand-controlled car continues a journey that began with learning to slide in and out of a wheel chair, moved to walking with the assistance of machines before he stood on his own, and then almost miraculously climbed the stairs into a plane unassisted on his way to attend the NTT IndyCar Series season opener in March.

It began when Wickens crashed early in the 2018 ABC Supply 500 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway after contact with another car led to a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Not even worrying about whether or not he would walk again, Wickens vowed to be back in a race car as soon as possible.

Next to Wickens in the passenger seat on Sunday will be his fiancée, Karli Woods, who has been supporting his recovery almost from the second his car came to a stop at Pocono. When the pair gets married later this year, Wickens plans to dance at the wedding, although he quipped that “hopefully we can sway a little bit. She might have to take the lead and I'll just drag behind her, but we'll figure something out.”

The NSX he will drive Sunday has a ring installed around the steering wheel that Wickens pushes with his thumb brake to apply the throttle, while he brakes using a lever with his right hand. No modifications were needed to the paddle shifters, which the NSX already has.

Wickens did a shakedown test of the car Wednesday at nearby Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville, where he raced many times in junior categories. He then got about 30 minutes of practice on the Exhibition Place circuit Thursday. It didn't disappoint.

“I think the most liberating part was as soon as I got into the car, I got strapped in and like pushed the ring throttle for the first time, and the car started creeping away, and then I just like went full throttle just to kind of see what it would do," he said. "Honestly, the car is so good that that was kind of a moment where I'm like, 'yeah, I miss that,' and that was one of those situations, because the thing is, once you've driven an Indy car in anger for a while, it's hard to get excited by a road car.

“It was one of those moments where I actually stayed full throttle for a while and then I kind of just coasted to kind of just take it all in and experience it all, and like I said before, just how grateful I am that Arrow could allow me to accelerate a car without using my legs was something pretty special.”

Robert Wickens

The car is a joint project between Honda and Wickens' team sponsor Arrow Electronics, which has its headquarters in Denver where much of Wickens' rehabilitation took place. While helping Wickens is a given, the car serves a higher purpose for Arrow.

“One of our philosophies at Arrow is not to develop technology for technology’s sake, but instead integrate and customize technology to make people’s lives better,” said Joe Verrengia, the company's director of corporate social responsibility.

“The car is part of Rob’s recovery, and it is an example of how technology makes life better. If technology can help do that, it is more than a physical accomplishment or a way to improve practical mobility. It gives an opportunity to be in command, make decisions and execute those decisions. That has benefits far beyond getting from A to B.”

This version is Phase 1 and Arrow plans more modifications in future phases that will include refining the controls and getting Wickens' input to develop more extensive, customized modifications for higher performance driving, like the NTT IndyCar Series.

“To give you an idea of how fast we got it done, we got the car and about two weeks later we got it on the road and Robert wrecked it yesterday,” Arrow chief executive Mike Long joked.

“I think everybody in the world was wondering if Robert would go fast again, I will tell you that I don't think there is any question. We wanted to start this now with Robert now so we can be a part of his rehab together with our friends at Honda and get Robbie back to racing because that's what he wants. We are going to be there to support that effort all of the way.”

The long-term plan is to figure out modifications that will get Wickens back behind the wheel of an Indy car and competing no matter what limitations his injuries create. His team owners, Sam Schmidt, who was paralyzed in a 2000 testing accident in Florida, and fellow Canadian Ric Peterson, pledged to have Wickens' No. 6 Schmidt Peterson Motorsport Honda ready for him whenever he was able to get back in.

Although the set up will work in the NSX for the parade lap, Wickens said it would not be the optimal to drive an Indy car -- yet.

While the road to the No. 6 car's seat may still be a bit fuzzy, one thing is clear to Wickens: The unwavering support of INDYCAR fans has played a key role in keeping him focused on his ultimate goal of racing again.

“It's them that really kind of picked me up on my down days, and being here, seeing so many hats and shirts is — it makes me want to get back. I want those guys to have a reason to wear the shirt, not to make it a pyjama shirt or something,” he said.

“I think I always need to be in a positive mindset to be happy, and that's been a big part of my life from the beginning. I feed off of other people's energy. So when everyone is giving me all the support and all the positive messages, it does reach me. Thank you all, and hopefully there's a very exciting Honda Indy of Toronto this week.”

Wickens' Sunday be drive during the NTT IndyCar Series' broadcast on the NBC Sports Network, which airs the Honda Indy Toronto at 3 p.m. ET.

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