An athlete overcoming catastrophe and returning from injury to compete at a high level is one of the greatest exhibitions in professional sports. It is an inspiring and heroic display of perseverance that sports fans latch onto because of the relatable element of struggle. Athletes seem larger than life, and the display of vulnerability that comes with an injury is humanizing. In a way, it returns an athlete to a state of normalcy, and when they once again rise to a pinnacle, it becomes a victory for not just the individual, but spectators from all walks of life.
On this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download, Dale and co-host Mike Davis welcome Guelph, Ontario’s own Robert Wickens into the Bojangles studio to discuss his journey in racing, which was interrupted by a horrific crash in 2018. After establishing himself as one of the most promising up and comers in the Indycar ranks, Wickens was involved in an accident that left him with a thoracic spinal fracture, broken neck, and numerous fractures to his legs, hands, arms and ribs. As a result of the T4 spinal fracture, Wickens was now a paraplegic, and faced a lengthy recovery. But through a well-documented rehabilitation process, Wickens overcame the odds, and returned to racing action this year in the Michelin Pilot Challenge with Bryan Herta Autosport.
Robert’s path in auto racing began on his living room carpet, where he played out races with diecast cars on a homemade speedway. His dedication and undivided attention to the activity, which went as far as smashing the cars to simulate crashes and coloring in the grooves to represent track wear convinced his parents to allow him the opportunity to try his hand behind the wheel of a go-kart. This chance came while attending races in Michigan, when the family checked out a karting facility in proximity to Michigan International Speedway. His parents were impressed that he displayed a grasp on the concept of racing lines and cornering speed, and it wasn’t long before Wickens would find himself in competition, through the near-by Waterloo Regional Kart Club.
Wickens came from average means, and his parents worked overtime to fund his racing endeavors. This meant he raced on a shoestring budget, and he even recalled at one point having four different tire manufacturers on his kart. Upon receiving a professional tune-up, he went on a winning spree, which began his ascent up the Canadian karting ranks. Robert
explained to Dale that when it came time to try out a kart with sequential shifting, he attempted to learn the fundamentals by running a motor bike down a dirt road. He would eventually get the hang of it and soon his circuit of competition expanded, even attending World Karting Association events in the United States.
Time spent in the ranks of the Sunoco Ron Fellows Karting Championship would help propel Wickens racing career to not only the next level, but to international waters. A scholarship shoot-out held for ten promising prospects in the program was held at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, and at the end of 2004 Robert got his first taste of driving a real race car. Through winning numerous season championships and scholarships, Wickens arrived in the ranks of Formula BMW, starting his expedition into single-seater, formula racing. In 2005, his impressive rookie campaign of two wins and five podiums scored him another scholarship for the following season. However, he decided to roll the dice and request his funding early, to instead use it to cover the entry fee for the Formula BMW World Final event held in Bahrain. There, Robert once again turned heads by scoring the pole, but was quickly disqualified during technical inspection due to an ill-fitting suspension cover. This relegated him to the rear-starting position in the three-heat races, to which he raced to sixth, fifth and third-place finishes.
Robert explained that this performance was essential to his next step in motorsports, because a representative from Red Bull Motorsports introduced himself not long after the first preliminary race. He said that the upcoming season’s budget had been expended for developmental drivers, but he was impressed with the rookie’s drive. Wickens continued charging through the pack for the rest of the event card, coming from 34th to sixth in the final race. The performance was enough for Red Bull to take a chance, and Wickens returned home with a contract in his hands.
Over the next four years, Wickens raced his way up the formula ladder in Europe, competing in Champ Car Atlantic, Formula Renault 3.5 Series, Formula 3 Euro Series and finally the FIA Formula Two Championship in 2009. Wickens explained that his contract detailed that he must win the F2 season championship to retain his deal with Red Bull, and although placing second after a mechanically plagued campaign, he was ultimately let go. The following year, Wickens competed in the GP3 Series where he won two events and again placed second in the season points. The feat caught the eyes of Marussia Virgin Racing, and he was signed as a reserve driver for their Formula One team for the 2011 season. On off weekends, he competed in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series again, and with five wins and ten podiums he lifted the season championship trophy. His pathway seemed destined for the top tier, but disappointingly he was outbid in his contract with Marussia Virgin, leaving him without a ride for 2012.
As fate would have it, Mercedes was in the process of reviving their junior team and developmental program with a focus in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters series, and they contacted Robert for a test in Barcelona, which resulted in a five-year agreement with the manufacturer. Through this apprenticeship, he would have seven-time Formula One champion Michael Schumacher as a mentor, who himself came through the program in the 1990s. Robert recounted a call he received in the middle of the night while at home in Canada from Schumacher, and what it was like getting to interact with the racing legend. From 2012 to 2017, Wickens raced the DTM circuit, amassing six wins and 15 podiums. But when the decision was made by Mercedes to exit DTM and enter Formula E racing, Robert again was forced to shift his efforts.
The next chapter began with an offer from Schmidt Peterson to go Indycar racing in 2018. The agreement was made during the 2017 calendar, and he actually got some time behind the wheel during the June weekend at Road America, when driver Mikhail Aleshin was late to the event due to immigration visa issues. Wickens recalled immediately noticing the physicality of a championship car, brought on by the absence of power steering and high downforce and corner speed. He explained that this element was his biggest adjustment from his previous types of racing experiences. During his debut the next year, Wickens again impressed by scoring the pole at St. Petersburg. He would go on to lead most of the contest until late contact with Alexander Rossi cost him position. He followed up with a second-place result at Phoenix and three other podiums, including Rookie of the Year honors during the Indianapolis 500, before the tour arrived at Pocono for the ABC Supply 500 in August.
Robert explained the feeling of instability of an Indycar going around Pocono, due to its three different corner configurations. Despite this, he was feeling comfortable during the race, even passing cars in the outside lane to gain position. The last moment he recalled before his crash was racing to the inside of Ryan Hunter-Reay. What ensued was a horrific accident that sent Wickens careening into the retaining fence and then spinning violently several times in the air. The breaks in his legs likely came from the initial impact of going from 212 miles per hour to net zero in a matter of seconds, but the thoracic spinal fracture and other injuries came from the g-force of the car revolving so quickly.
After being in a coma and critical condition for several days, Robert was eager to begin his rehabilitation process. He and his fiancé Karli began researching paralysis to get an idea of the best facilities available and what to expect in the coming months. Upon realizing that not much material about T4 spinal fracture recovery existed, the couple decided to document Robert’s progress, in hopes that other people with similar injuries could learn and be inspired. Robert explained that improvement for him was measured in raw results, and that he worked tirelessly to be able to regain mobility in his feet and legs. It wasn’t long before he turned his attention back to racing, and with the help of iRacing he overcame his instinct to use his feet and became comfortable utilizing a hand-controlled driving system. At the beginning of 2022, the announcement was made that Robert would return behind the wheel, piloting a Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai in the Michelin Pilot Challenge. In his first start at Daytona, he scored a podium third-place finish with co-driver Mark Wilkins.
The future is bright for Wickens, as he strives to become more comfortable behind the wheel and master the braking element of the hand-controlled car. He and his now-wife Karli are also expecting their first child in July.
Download listeners can expect an inspiring tale of overcoming hardship and the dedication to return to glory. In the opening segment of the episode, Dale and Mike discuss the new Pioneer Ballot for the NASCAR Hall of Fame and who their choices are for this year’s induction class. During the Ask Jr. portion of the show, listeners asked questions about April Fools’ jokes, Kyle Busch’s grille tape penalty from Richmond and the NextGen’s potential upcoming performance on dirt. You can hear all of this and more on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download - available on this website and all major podcast platforms.