The Highlight of the Weekend

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I learned my lesson the hard way several years ago, to not do write-ups about the Rolex 24 at Daytona. I forget exactly what year it was, but it was one of those typical years when a lot of NTT IndyCar Series drivers were in the field. For one thing, most readers here reminded me that this was an IndyCar site, and they didn’t come here to read about sports cars. I also got myself in trouble, because I have a very casual knowledge of sports car endurance racing. Not knowing all of the nuances and strategies of the Rolex 24, I said a lot of things that we’re flat-out wrong. I swore then, that I would stick to what I know best.

However, something happened this weekend at Daytona International Speedway that I felt compelled to write about. It wasn’t even in the actual Rolex 24, but a weekend support series race; the Michelin Pilot Challenge (MPC). It involved a former IndyCar driver that we are all very familiar with – Robert Wickens.

We’ve all seen the horrifying crash from Turn Two at Pocono in 2018. I will not post photos or videos here of the crash. If you wish to see replays, there are plenty to be found on You Tube. I attended three of the last four races at Pocono. I’m glad that 2018 was the one year I missed.

We also know the aftermath. Robert Wickens has been in a wheelchair ever since. I am careful not to label Wickens as a paraplegic. He does have some movement in his legs, and he continues to go through grueling physical therapy to strengthen them. If you are on social media, you’ve seen his periodic posts showing his continued improvement. I’m not an expert on spinal cord injuries, but I’m told that there is still a chance that Wickens will walk again at some point. On the downside, I’m also told that after two years of rehab following the initial injury – the rate of improvement slows down considerably. So for now, Wickens gets around best in a wheelchair.

Part of his recovery is setting challenging, yet realistic goals for himself. A little more than a year after his accident, Wickens married his girlfriend Karli Woods. He made a promise to her and to himself, that he would be able to stand at their wedding – a promise he would fulfill.

Wickens also vowed to race again. A major box was checked when he was able to drive one of the Honda pace cars outfitted with hand-controls around the track at Toronto in 2019. Fittingly, Karli was in the passenger seat by his side. The role that Karli Woods has played in his recovery cannot be understated. Not everyone would’ve stuck around, when their significant-other is suddenly stricken with a life-altering condition. She was not legally bound to Wickens, and a lesser person may have bailed. She did not, and she has been by his side throughout it all.

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In May of 2021, another milestone was accomplished. Wickens tested a Hyundai Veloster N TCR for Bryan Herta Autosport (BHA), outfitted with hand controls, at Mid-Ohio. It didn’t take him long to get up to speed. Earlier this month, it was announced that Wickens will team with co-driver Mark Wilkins for the full season in the Michelin Pilot Challenge.

The opening round of the MPC was this past Friday at Daytona. The MPC follows a format of two and a half hour races, with one mandatory driver change. The No. 33 BHA Hyundai finished third, a podium finish for Robert Wickens in his very first race back after his injury three and a half years ago. Apparently, Wickens was seriously focused leading up to and during the race. In an interview with his longtime friend, James Hinchcliffe, Wickens confessed that his emotions got the best of him on the final lap. He was understandably all smiles during the interview.

There were a lot of storylines from Daytona this past weekend; from the frigid temperatures, the wins for IndyCar drivers Helio Castroneves (two overall wins in a row), Simon Pagenaud, Colton Herta, and Pato O’Ward, along with the excellent debut of James Hinchcliffe in the NBC booth. But, in my opinion, none compare with the inspirational podium finish of Robert Wickens in his first race back, as his recovery continues. It was the highlight of the weekend.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “The Highlight of the Weekend”

  1. I agree George. Whatever happened in the Rolex after that race Friday was a bonus. I thought Wickens drove a great race.

  2. I am a total neophyte when it comes to all this race series stuff. I’ve been a gearhead since that first peek at my grandfather’s Rocket 88. I can tell you alot about short track dirt racing or land speed racing, but now that I’ve discovered your posts, I’m all ears, ‘er eyes or something. I’m learning. I guess that’s the point.
    Today’s post fits all of us and thanks for sharing such a touching story. Makes an old gearhead kinda misty. I’d wipe away that tear, but my fingers are still greasy. 🙂 Keep it up.

  3. That was an awesome thing to watch as Wickens celebrated on the podium!

  4. Great article and great result.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Racers race. Wickens is a racer… one heck of a racer. I was thrilled to see him back on track.

  6. The Robert Wickens story was great. The whole weekend was great. I love the Rolex 24. The official start to the new racing year!

  7. Well said George, glad to see Robert back in the car!

    The Weather Tech series is great fun (Rolex 24) – but the series that Robert is competing in – Michelin Pilot Challenge – is many times a better race on IMSA weekends. As a Indycar fan, I follow IMSA as close as I can – if you are looking for competition – some of the lower series have even more competition than the top level at IMSA. MPC with the two classes is a must watch – and the MX Cup is almost always a photo finish.

    Looking forward to St. Petersburg.

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