How paralyzed runner Robert Wickens handles new speed limits on the comeback
- Thanks to special hand controls, Wickens was able to return to racing this year in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge.
- Former IndyCar racer Sam Schmidt and motorcycle drag racer Wayne Rainey were also back in the racing machines last weekend at Goodwood.
- After finishing third as co-driver with compatriot Mark Wilkins in his first race since his injury at the season-opening event at Daytona in January, Wickens returned to winning ways for the first time. since 2017.
Last weekend was a milestone for several former drivers whose racing careers were cut short due to devastating life-changing crashes.
Yet despite injuries that crippled them all, they never lost their need for speed – and they all showed last weekend how accessible driving technology and other driving assistance elements not only helped get the game back, but also gave hope to other runners who suffered life-altering injuries.
At the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed in England, Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar team co-owner Sam Schmidt completed the hill climb in a special McLaren 720S Spider which was modified by the team’s main sponsor Arrow Electronics.
Schmidt, who previously drove a specially tuned Corvette at Goodwood in 2014, used new technology that allowed him to control acceleration and braking through a “sip and puff” straw-like device, while also using motion. head and breathing to steer the car. , according to Engadget.com.
Schmidt became a quadriplegic in 2000 when he crashed while practicing at the old Walt Disney World Speedway near Orlando, Florida.
Also at Goodwood, three-time world champion motorcycle rider Wayne Rainey, paralyzed from the chest after crashing during a race in 1993, rode the same bike he had won his last title in 1992. The bike had been on display at the Yamaha Museum in Japan for the past three decades.
But special modifications, including the addition of bicycle-like training wheels to keep the bike upright, as well as moving the shifter controls as well as the rear brake to the handlebars, allowed Rainey to ride at back on the bike using only his hands.
It was an emotional time for Rainey, who was joined by former chief rival Kenny Roberts – now one of Rainey’s closest friends – as well as Rainey’s son Rex, who helped his father ride and get off the bike. Rex Rainey was only 10 months old when his father was injured.
As Rainey said, “I guess dreams come true.”
And then there was Robert Wickens, who was crippled during an IndyCar race at Pocono Raceway in 2018.
Thanks to special hand controls, Wickens was able to return to racing this year in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge. After finishing third as co-driver with fellow Canadian Mark Wilkins in his first race since his injury at the season-opening event at Daytona in January, Wickens returned to winning ways for the first times since 2017 last weekend at Watkins Glen International.
“It was a great weekend for disability awareness,” Wickens said of his achievement as well as those of Schmidt and Rainey during an IMSA conference call on Tuesday.
Even though his return to IndyCar racing is unlikely – unless the technology can be developed to allow him to do so under IndyCar rules – Wickens is still part of the Arrow McLaren SP team which Schmidt owns as a sort of ambassador.
“Sam Schmidt driving his McLaren 720 up the hill at Goodwood, I think he broke his previous record from last year when he did it in the Corvette,” Wickens said. “It’s just pretty cool. And to win at Watkins Glen in the Michelin Pilot Challenge for me personally was just amazing.
While Wickens is grateful for the technology that allows him to co-drive the No. 33 Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb/Agajanian Hyundai Elantra N-TCR, he has also been involved in the development of even more encouraging technology for other drivers who have undergone catastrophic injuries while running.
“But there are always things that hold you back,” Wickens said. “Even right now with what we’ve been able to achieve so far this season in the Michelin Pilot Challenge, I feel like I’m getting more and more comfortable every weekend with my manual controls, but we also expose areas where the manual controls could be evolved and improved.
“Now we’re in the middle of the summer swing with back-to-back races this weekend at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, then a weekend off before going to Lime Rock Park in mid-July, and he’s not there is no real opportunity to test and show the proof of concept of the updated system or something to improve without guaranteeing reliability.
“We’re not going to go straight into a race weekend with an updated system that doesn’t really know if it’s going to work reliably or not. So I think we’re at the point right now where we have definitely reached the capacity of my manual control system. Luckily it’s reliable, it’s competitive, I have a good feeling with it and I’m getting more and more comfortable with it, that’s why I think more performance comes with every race.
“But each category sees its own complications. If you look at a faster car with more downforce, it also requires more brake force, which then requires more air assist for me to get the same brake pressure as an able-bodied driver. With the TCR car, the Hyundai Elantra, you have to brake very hard. To put it in layman’s terms, like for me to match the brake pressure Mark Wilkins can achieve, I have to pull the brake ring down with about 100 pounds of force.
“So imagine, everyone has done these grip tests at some point in their life, imagine squeezing 100 pounds and I have to do these 11 corners at Watkins Glen and I will do it for 10 corners at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park this weekend. It’s not an easy task and moving forward into other categories (classes and types of racing like IndyCar) there are always different requirements. I think it’s an open book. There are no real known quantities on where the complications might be and sometimes you find it right after experiencing it.
Even though Wickens, who with his wife Karli is expecting their first child in mid-July, had to get used to totally different technology to compete behind the wheel, but some things are the same, sort of
“It’s like riding a bike, but it’s a very different bike, I guess that’s the best way to describe it,” Wickens said. “Racing has been my life since I was seven. It’s something I’ve worked really hard to get to the level I was at when I was racing IndyCar in 2018. And after the crash I knew just that I had to work harder to try and get back to that.
“I had no idea what it would look like for me. I didn’t know if I could go straight back to IndyCar or if I should start in karting, like you did when you were a kid. The whole cover was just a bit unknown. Luckily we landed somewhere in the middle with the nice folks at Hyundai and Bryan Herta giving me the chance to take part in the Michelin Pilot Challenge.
“It’s just awesome. I’ve always been the happiest when I’m driving a race car. It doesn’t matter if it’s a stressful race with a lot of PR and a lot of press around it. The second you put your helmet on and close that door it’s just peace for me and I can finally get in the zone and get in the race and this has been my happy place for most of my life Yeah , it feels good to go back. … Yeah, life is good, it almost feels like living in a dream sometimes.
Wickens doesn’t see a return to IndyCar at this point in his career.
“It’s tough,” Wickens said. “What Bryan Herta Autosport and Hyundai were able to accomplish in terms of ingenuity by installing the manual control system in the Hyundai Elantra was no small feat. And the physical demands in IndyCar, the technical demands of adapting an Indy car, are an even greater challenge simply because of the packaging of the car.
“A TCR car has a bit of space inside the cockpit to accommodate some of the manual control devices that we need. IndyCar is a whole new Pandora’s box. So in the near future I won’t don’t really see that as a possibility. I would never completely rule it out, but right now I’m so grateful for everything Bryan Herta and Hyundai have given me, and I’d love nothing more than to keep going. this relationship in the future.
And it’s getting better in other ways too.
“At Daytona our driver changes took about 45 seconds to get me out of the car and at Watkins Glen last weekend our driver change took just 28 seconds,” Wickens said. “So we are definitely making progress. … We spare no effort and continue to contribute.
“(Getting back in a race car and winning) makes me feel pretty damn good. For so long in my recovery, when I was in hospital beds and struggling in rehab, trying to get some muscle regeneration and just trying to get some quality of life back, I knew I didn’t. wouldn’t have forgotten how to drive. I think the important thing was how to get a race car suited to my needs to show everyone what I can still do.
Follow Automatic week contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski