Don’t Fret Over Car No. 6

Yesterday morning, Arrow McLaren SP (AMSP) announced some changes coming for the 2023 IndyCar season. With Taylor Kiel’s departure a couple of weeks ago, the team has elevated Gavin Ward (formerly of Team Penske) to the position of Racing Director, while Brian Barnhart (formerly of Andretti Autosport) has been named General Manager. Barnhart will also work on the pit box of Alexander Rossi – a role that both enjoyed in their time together at Andretti.

One curious move by the team generated the biggest amount of buzz on social media. Rossi will drive car No. 7, the car number originally driven by Felix Rosenqvist. In a move I don’t fully understand, Rosenqvist will be moved to car No. 6 – a number last run by the team this past May for Juan Montoya.

I guess it is all semantics, but it seems like since Rossi is the newest driver going into a newly expanded third car for AMSP – he would go into the car with the dormant car number. The fact that Rosenqvist is sliding into what is essentially the new fulltime team and car number – I guess that tells us what they think of Rosenqvist and where he ranks within the team.

But that is not what created the slight social media buzz. It was the fact that No. 6 was being used at all.

Car No. 6 has not been used by the team since they were named Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for the 2018 season. That was when James Hinchcliffe drove the No. 5; and his best friend and teammate, Robert Wickens, drove the No. 6. That is, until the race at Pocono, when Wickens crashed in Turn Two and suffered multiple injuries – including a spinal cord injury, that has rendered the popular driver a paraplegic so far.

Fast Forward to the following offseason announcement that Arrow had made a significant investment in the team, and the team would be renamed Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Three cars were on display at the event held in Denver – the No. 5 for Hinchcliffe, the No. 7 for newcomer Marcus Ericsson and the No.6. The No. 6 would be held for Robert Wickens, whenever he recovered from his injuries and could resume his IndyCar career.

Lots of changes have taken place since then. McLaren and Zak Brown came in with their seemingly unlimited resources near the end of the 2019 season. Because of bridges burnt in Formula One, the longtime Honda team switched to Chevy when Honda refused to part of anything Zak Brown and McLaren were a part of. McLaren parted ways with Ericsson and, ultimately, Hinchcliffe; yet they offered to keep Robert Wickens on in the advisory role he had assumed since his accident.

One thing I remembered hearing at the time that Wickens had his accident was that with spinal cord injuries; the bulk of the progress and recovery takes place in the first two years. After two years, the rate of improvement slows down dramatically. That’s not to say there is no improvement beyond the two-year mark, but most improvement toward recovery occurs in that initial two-year window.

For the first several months after his accident, we saw videos posted by Wickens showing remarkable progress from his therapy. He shared his personal goal with everyone, to be able to dance at his wedding to girlfriend Karli Woods, who had been by his side throughout his entire ordeal.

As time went on, we continued to see the inspirational videos of an unsteady Wickens walking up the stairs to a private jet. All of us were treated to an in-car view of Wickens driving a modified pace car at speed, with Karli in the passenger’s seat, during the Toronto race weekend – his home town . The look on his face was priceless as he had scratched another goal off of his list. We saw more evidence that he was able to take steps with the aid of a walker. Then just barely a year after his accident, we had video proof that Wickens achieved his goal. He was able to stand and dance at his wedding.

Once COVID hit, we stopped seeing the videos. I’m sure his rehab center was forced to shut down along with everything else for months, but things went quiet on the Wickens front for quite a while.

Then he resurfaced this past season – driving (and winning) in the Michelin Pilot Challenge, driving for Bryan Herta Autosport. Wickens celebrated on the podium in his wheelchair, serving as an inspiration for disabled individuals around the world. This was no publicity stunt, this was a talented driver that would not let his disability stop him from pursuing his passion.

No one has really commented publicly about it (and I hope this doesn’t upset anyone), but the unspoken reality is that Robert Wickens is probably not getting into an IndyCar cockpit anytime soon. It appears that the two-year adage was true in Wickens case. I am sure he works hard at achieving that goal every day, but the difficulty of escaping a burning Indy car for an able-bodied individual is tough enough. In his current condition, I imagine it would be too dangerous for Robert Wickens to compete – and that’s assuming the IndyCar rulebook could be modified to allow hand-operated controls in an Indy car.

Why am I rehashing the last four years in the life of Robert Wickens? Because AMSP is catching flack for “giving up” on Robert Wickens and have chosen to use the car number that had been set aside for him when he returned.

I am not in the habit of defending AMSP, McLaren or Zak Brown. I think their business tactics are slimy and even though I like the drivers that drive for them, I find myself rooting against the team as a whole. But in this instance, I agree with them.

Wickens has worked for the team for four seasons since his accident. By all accounts, it is still a good working relationship – even though McLaren and Brown dumped his best friend shortly after their arrival at the end of the 2019 season. They know where things stand in Wickens’ recovery, and whether or not his return to an Indy car cockpit is in the near future. Without knowing this for certain, I have an idea Wickens gave the team his approval before they assigned the number to Rosenqvist.

AMSP was not getting crushed yesterday. Most fans were excited about the strong driver lineup and were asking how they can get some of the new gear for Rossi and Rosenqvist in the No. 6. But there were some fans who were perturbed by the team issuing the number that was promised to Wickens, to Rosenqvist instead. One comment even referred to AMSP as despicable.

Something tells me that this is not a big deal at all to Wickens, just some of his fans. I think he is having too much fun focusing on his immediate future in racing, which is very bright, than to worry about his former car number being used by someone else. Wickens seems to be anxious to leave the past and concentrate on the present and future. If he improves to the point that he can eventually race in IndyCar, he’ll worry about where to drive and what car number he’ll carry then. If Wickens can move on and not fret about such things, I think his fans can too.

George Phillips

4 Responses to “Don’t Fret Over Car No. 6”

  1. James T Suel Says:

    Agree 100%

  2. To me, the loss of Wickens talent is tied for the biggest tragedy in IndyCar, again this is just me, along with Greg Moore. What I mean is, the tragedy of what we missed out on talent wise. I just hate what happened to him and I hate what he and we missed out on, this guy could be battling toe-to-toe with Josef and the others right now at the top. But we can’t change what happened. Sad fact is, Robert is where he is and that’s about as good as it gets for him, he’s made great strides and improvements. But this doesn’t seem like a situation where he will ever walk without assistance again, which is awful. Unless adaptations are made, he will never competitively drive with his feet again.

    It’s time to move on from thinking he’s coming back. That said, yeah, they could have probably set the number aside forever at AMSP, I personally don’t like retiring numbers though, I think the Yankees number set looks stupid with so many numbers retired, for example (and you can surely add #99 to that list after last night). Let new people use it and continue the legacy of the number.

  3. Steven Kilsdonk Says:

    Here’s a thought. I don’t know what the current expectations for maximum amount of time are for a driver to extricate themselves without assistance. And I can’t imagine what sort of upper body strength is necessary to do so for someone in Robert’s condition. But, the addition of the aeroscreen has to dramatically complicate the process for Robert, I would think, relative to any current driver.

  4. I doubt Wickens cares about the number. In fact, other than A.J. and the #14, I just feel like car numbers aren’t that big of a deal in IndyCar. Always seems like that’s been more of a stock car racing thing to me. Petty #43, Earnhardt #3, Bill Elliott #9, etc. etc.

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