Three and a half years ago, Robert Wickens' life changed completely when he went from a rising star in IndyCar competition to having to fight to gain the ability to walk again after a horrific crash at Pocono Raceway in August of 2018. That fight has taken a major step forward, as Wickens will now regain his status as a full-time racecar driver with a new ride in the ranks of sports car racing.
On Friday, it was announced that Robert Wickens will compete full-time in the 2022 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge season, teaming up with Mark Wilkins to drive the No. 33 Hyundai Elantra N TCR for Bryan Herta Autosport. Wickens, whose car will be equipped with hand controls, will begin his season at the BMW M Endurance Challenge at Daytona on January 28.
Wickens' opportunity in IMSA will mark his first opportunity to race full-time since 2018, when he was paralyzed as the result of a terrible accident during an IndyCar race at Pocono. Wickens had become a fast riser in the IndyCar ranks at the time of his crash, as he earned four podiums and earned Rookie of the Year honors in the 2018 Indianapolis 500 with a ninth-place finish.
It’s been a long, winding, and difficult road to this point and the journey is not over, but thankful we’ll be able to move down the road with a bit more speed!— Robert Wickens (@robertwickens) January 14, 2022
I’ll be joining @BHA for the 2022 @IMSA season and piloting one of their @hyundai Elantras.
Now, let’s go win. pic.twitter.com/hoPyoorJTO
"I know I'm a competitor," Wickens said in a story by Jeff Olson of IMSA.com. "If I don't give myself a level of competition, I felt like I wouldn't possibly work hard enough to get to the level where I am today. I don't put myself in any category above anybody else who's recovering from an injury or a setback in their life, but it's been quite the ride. Here we are, and I'm happy to be here."
In August of 2018, Wickens was racing for position in the early laps of a 500-mile race at Pocono when his car touched wheels with Ryan Hunter-Reay with Turn 2, launching Wickens' car airborne before it violently collided with the track's catchfence. Wickens suffered devastating injuries as a result of the accident, including a thoracic spinal fracture, a spinal cord injury, a neck fracture, tibia and fibula fractures to both legs and fractures in both hands.
As a result of his injuries, Wickens is now a paraplegic, and he indicated Friday that his progress has plateaued. While he is able to stand and walk with assistance, he told reporters that he is not regaining muscle function and will likely be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Wickens will be able to drive his car with specially-designed hand controls that have also been used by Michael Johnson, another paraplegic driver who races in IMSA. The system uses a metal ring on the steering wheel that connects to the brake pedal, as well as throttle and shift paddles that allow the driver to accelerate, brake, shift, and steer with their hands.
As he competes in the Pilot Challenge -- a companion series to IMSA's flagship WeatherTech SportsCar Championship -- Wickens stated that he is looking towards an eventual move up to IMSA's top series or a potential return to IndyCar. Wickens' background is in open wheel racing, as he raced in Formula 1's ladder system prior to making the move to IndyCar.
"It would be awesome to race in the Indy 500. At the same time, I'm interested in exploring new avenues," Wickens said. "I've never really done any sports car driving. Racing at the highest levels of IMSA in the WeatherTech series would be amazing."
Wickens is one of a select group of drivers who have returned to racing despite suffering injuries that left them with physical disabilities. The most famous example is former CART Champion and F1 driver Alex Zanardi, who lost both his legs in a near-fatal accident late in the 2001 season only to return to racing just two years later.