DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — After finishing second in September at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Robert Wickens joined a crowded podium ceremony with co-driver Harry Gottsacker.
Wickens had little ceremonial joy to offer. He was angry about contact with Mikey Taylor that ended any chance of winning, but the runner-up finish kept Wickens and Gottsacker in the lead in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge’s Touring Car (TCR) standings. With one race remaining, news of their 20-point lead helped Wickens set aside the anger and reset the focus.
“It’s tough,” Wickens said then. “We have to put our heads down. … “(The team) is doing everything right. They’re doing a good job. It’s just a bit frustrating.”
Frustration eventually turned into something far better. Four weeks after that chaotic scene played out in Indy, a different, more joyful scene emerged: Wickens and Gottsacker, sitting on the hood of their Hyundai Elantra N in the pits at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, reveling in the afterglow of a championship.
“It’s not how I drew it up in the weeks between IMS and here at Road Atlanta,” Wickens said. “In the end, it doesn’t matter.”
Championships change everything. In Wickens’ case, that couldn’t be more literal. By lifting the trophy, Wickens acknowledged the significance of his accomplishment and shared it with the people who have followed his journey. Paralyzed from the waist down after a crash in an IndyCar Series race in 2018, Wickens willed his way back into professional racing.
Not just to compete, but to win championships.
“That was the goal going into it,” Wickens said. “It was obviously very optimistic, given how the championship was playing out. But that’s motorsports. It’s unpredictable. Anything can happen.”
Because Wickens remained focused on the future, anything did happen.
“I don’t know if it’s the nature of an athlete, or maybe it’s just me always trying to seek the next thing,” Wickens told CTV News in Canada recently. “After the race when I was talking to media, between questions I was already thinking: ‘What’s next? How can we be better than this?’ Even when I was laid up in a hospital bed in a full body cast, it was always: ‘How can I get better, get back and constantly work forward?’”
After the crash, Wickens knew he still had the skills to compete against other professional racers. He just needed a way.
“If I was an NHL player and got paralyzed on the ice, I couldn’t return and compete in the NHL,” he told CTV. “I would have to do the adaptive sport equivalent to that, and you wouldn’t be competing against the same people you were before. Whereas a race car driver, although my car is different – I don’t use my legs anymore, I use my hands solely – I’m racing in the same categories against the same people as I was when I was an able-bodied person.”
While unpredictable at times, Wickens’ comeback was predicted. During his recovery, Wickens appeared at an IndyCar race in March 2019 and talked about returning to racing with a car equipped with hand controls for the brakes and throttle.
“There have been so many remarkable drivers that have succeeded with hand controls,” Wickens said then. “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.”
It happened in 2022, in a specially equipped Hyundai from Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian. At first, Wickens felt he was making rookie mistakes. As time went on, though, he became sharper, quicker and more precise. At 34, he became a champion with an unlimited future.
“I would be more than happy to return back with (team owner) Bryan (Herta) and Hyundai and try to fight to protect our championship,” Wickens said. “I would love the opportunity to get into the (IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship) in some way, shape or form.”
The details of his future are unknown, but the recent past was all about consistency. Wickens and Gottsacker pieced together a championship without winning a race in the No. 33 BHA Hyundai. Six runner-up finishes in a 10-race season have a way of adding up to a championship.
“It just goes to show how strong we were as a team,” Wickens said. “We went through a lot of adversity. We didn’t have a perfect season, but we had very good damage limitation when we needed it. I think that really was the deciding factor.”
A few other deciding factors were there, too: A racer who wouldn’t stop racing. A racer who’s still fast and skilled. A racer who has a championship in hand and an immeasurable future ahead. The championship brought it all together – past, present and future.
“For me it hit pretty deep because of what I had to come through over the past five years with injuries, learning a new life and trying to get back to the career I once had,” Wickens told CTV. “I’m not in the business of motivating or encouraging people, but I love the fact that I can raise awareness for spinal cord injury through competing, not through just being there and representing. I want to represent the community by winning championships and competing and showing an injury doesn’t have to define who you are. You can do anything you set your mind to.”
As the championship celebration last month at Michelin Raceway slowed down, BHA chief operating officer Sean Jones put everything into perspective.
“We’ve won a few, but this one is a bit special,” Jones said. “Everyone knows Robert’s story.”