Robert Wickens has certainly experienced a rollercoaster of emotions since his last victory in a race car in 2017.
From scoring podium finishes in the NTT IndyCar Series, to suffering a paralyzing injury and wondering if he would ever have the opportunity to race again.
At Watkins Glen (N.Y) Int’l this past weekend, Wickens was once again on the top step of the podium.
Alongside Bryan Herta Autosport co-driver Mark Wilkins, the team earned its first victory as a group in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge Saturday, in the TCR class.
“I didn’t want to get too far ahead of myself at the time, but I had so much trust in Mark Wilkins that he was going to close out that race,” Wickens said. “Even the final laps, we had a lot of pressure from the Alpha Romeo, I knew that Mark was going to hang onto it. Unless something out of our control happened, I knew that he wasn’t going to let that slip. Definitely when we crossed the finish line, it was just immediate goosebumps. There was definitely internal happy tears and a lot of screaming internally.”
The victory was one Wickens had been itching to achieve for a long time.
“It’s funny, I was kind of hoping the win would’ve come sooner than it did,” Wickens jokingly remarked. “I didn’t really realize it until it came up after the race that everyone was telling me on the broadcast and NBC, that it was my first win since 2017.
“It’s weird it didn’t feel long because I wasn’t actually doing that much racing between my accident and now,” Wickens continued. “It felt great, it was such a great day, it felt like it was a long time coming.”
Wickens noted that he felt the team was due to break through on many occasions leading up to The Glen.
“Mark (Wilkins) and I and the entire 33 car, everyone at Bryan Herta Autosport, we’ve been slowly chipping away at this,” Wickens said. “We feel like we had the opportunity to possibly get a win in Sebring. While we were leading in the first stint, that got taken away from us from an accident that was out of our control. Laguna (Seca), we thought we had a shot at a win, (the) same thing happened. At Mid-Ohio, we were in for a shot, and had some misfortunes. It was one of those things where it felt like we were right on the doorstep, and if we just kept doing what we were doing, doing all the right things, doing the basics right.”
Getting back to the basics was a large part of Wickens having the ability to get back into a race car at a competitive level.
After his horrific crash while driving an Indy car at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway in 2018, Wickens’ mentality and goal through rehab stayed firm against the unknown.
“For so long in my recovery when I was in the hospital bed and then struggling through rehab trying to get muscle regeneration, and just trying to get back to quality of life, I knew I wouldn’t of forgotten how to drive,” Wickens said. “I think the important thing was how could we get a race car to suit my needs to show everyone what I can still do.”
With the addition of a hand-control system inside the No. 33 Hyundai Elantra to assist Wickens, he’s been able to adapt to the differences, and substantially gain speed every week.
Wickens and the team also see where the system can be improved to allow better performance.
“The issue of that, now we’re in the middle of the summer swing with back-to-back races this weekend at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, only one weekend off before we go to Lime Rock Park in the middle of July,” Wickens said. “There’s no real opportunity to get some testing in to actually show proof of concept of an updated system or something to improve without guaranteeing reliably.
“We’re not going to go straight into a race weekend with an updated system, not fulling understanding if it will work reliably or not,” Wickens added. “I think we’re at the point right now where we’ve definitely met the capacity of my hand control system. Thankfully, it’s reliable, it’s competitive. I have good feeling with it. I’m still getting more and more comfortable with it, which is why I think more performance is coming at each race.”
The comfortability level for Wickens hasn’t come without obstacles. With the hand controls, the Canadian explained how much force goes into each braking zone, and what it resembles the most in everyday life.
“For me to match the brake pressure that Mark Wilkins can achieve, I’m having to pull a brake ring with around 100 pounds of force,” Wickens said. “So imagine, everyone has done those grip test things at some point in their life. Imagine squeezing 100 pounds, and I get to do that, 11 corners in Watkins Glen, and I’ll get to do it for 10 corners in Canadian Tire Motorsports Park this weekend. It’s no easy task.”
With Canadian (Ont.) Tire Motorsports Park up next for the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, it’ll be the Toronto native’s first race back home since IndyCar raced in the streets of Toronto in 2018.
As Wickens has been back in the paddock area, his interaction with fans has meant a substantial amount to him and helped the 33-year-old appreciate the platform he’s been given.
“Sometimes people come up to me, they’ll start telling me their life story,” Wickens said. “It’s very humbling because I don’t see myself as an inspirational person. I’m just a guy trying to get back to something that I love to do. People tell me that they think that they beat cancer because of how motivated and driven I was, and if I could do it, they could do it. When people tell me their life story and what they’ve been through, it’s a crazy experience, it’s hard to explain into words.
“All I can say is that the fans in motorsport are a great group of people, they’re very kind. Everyone in the IMSA paddock have been so welcoming to me. It’s a category that I wasn’t really a part of in my prior life, but they’ve welcomed me with open arms and it’s been a very nice experience so far.”
This weekend, Wickens is looking forward to seeing familiar faces on his home turf.
“I know I’m going to have some close friends, family, people that haven’t seen me race since 2018, a lot of people that probably haven’t seen me prior to my accident,” he said. “It’s going to be a great event. I know ticket sales have been great. It’s going to be awesome support.”