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Mobility Robert Wickens gets back on track, with the help of hand controls

Robert Wickens, left, leaves the pit area at the IndyCar Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 8, 2019.

The Canadian Press

Less than a year ago, rookie racing driver Robert Wickens hit the wall at Ponoco Raceway in Pennsylvania. His Dallara DW12 spiralled up into the catch fence, spinning like a discus, exploding into shreds of carbon fibre. Wickens broke both his legs, fractured his hands, his ribs, a forearm and elbow, and injured his spine. He was paralyzed from the waist down.

This weekend, he gets back behind the wheel.

“I'm just so excited,” Wickens said in a short video announcement, “I can't wait to get a helmet on.”

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Torontonians should be on their feet. This year’s running of the Honda Indy sees the return of a Guelph-born racing hero, the son of a factory worker and a bus driver, and one who eventually went on to become an Indy 500 Rookie of the Year. Wickens will be leading the parade lap in a modified Acura NSX, fitted with hand controls adapted by American electronic components firm Arrow Electronics.

The Long Road Back: Robert Wickens's quest to get back behind the wheel

No, he’s not back in an Indy car, at least not yet. Wickens’s ride this weekend is a street car, albeit one of the fastest machines to currently be road legal. Its hybridized, twin-turbocharged V-6 engine has 573 horsepower, boasts a top speed of 307 km/h and can reach 100 km/h in under three seconds. To Wickens, it’ll probably feel like a 1987 Civic DX with a four-speed automatic.

The outing isn’t just a chance to run a demonstration lap for the crowd. It’s a chance to test out hand controls as he looks ahead to getting back at the front of the pack. Developed very rapidly as the result of a pit-lane meeting in March of this year, the specially prepared NSX is essentially a tuned version of an off-the-shelf customer application.

A mock-up of the Acura NSX parade car that Robert Wickens will drive at the Honda Indy Toronto.

Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports

That Wickens returns in an Acura NSX is fitting. Admittedly, the choice is dictated by the Arrow Schmidt-Peterson team’s partnership with Honda. But if you were you to walk through the doors of the Performance Manufacturing Center in Maryland, Ohio, where the modern NSX is made, you’d be greeted by a special Acura, one that pays tribute to a similar story. It’s a Zanardi edition NSX, one of just 51, named for back-to-back Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) champion and six-time Olympic paracycling medallist Alex Zanardi.

Like Wickens, Zanardi’s life was forever changed by a racing accident. In 2001, a collision cost him both his lower legs. Incredibly, he was back behind the wheel competing in touring-car racing by 2003. He currently holds the world record for a disabled athlete in the Ironman triathlon and competes in endurance racing with a BMW M8 GTE.

The Performance Manufacturing Center in Maryland, where the NSX is manufactured.

ACURA

At events like the 24 Hours of Daytona, Zanardi’s proficiency behind the wheel is something to behold. Like other endurance racers, he shares driving duties with a teammate on opposing stints. His driving partner is able-bodied, so the car’s wheel is swapped out during driver changes, all performed at lightning pit-stop speeds.

Zanardi’s wheel is a custom lump of carbon fibre that looks like the helm of a spacecraft. The throttle is controlled with the left hand, gear shifts with the right. Braking is controlled by a large lever on the centre console with a trigger to blip the throttle on downshifts.

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The Zanardi NSX is named after the back-to-back CART champion and six-time Olympic paracycling medallist Alex Zanardi, who lost both legs in a racing accident.

ACURA

Something similar could eventually steer Wickens back into full Indy competition. In the meantime, he’ll need to retrain his brain to use hand controls to dial in the delicate inputs required to extract the most out of a racing car at the limit.

Wickens’s control system is much simpler than Zanardi’s racing setup. For the Arrow NSX, Italian manufacturer Guidosimplex provided a throttle controller, essentially a ring around the steering wheel that can be squeezed to add power. Brakes are controlled by a hand lever. While the modifications to Wickens’s car are performed by a racing team, these are essentially the same technologies that currently help put disabled drivers back behind the wheel all across Canada.

“It's a real mixed bag,” says Craig Tschritter of Alliance Mobility Solutions in Richmond, B.C. “We've done a number of 4x4 Sprinter vans for families who like to get out into the back country, as well as a lot of Teslas in the last little while.”

Robert Wickens sits in the pit area at the IndyCar Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 8, 2019.

Shadd, Dirk/The Associated Press

Alliance Mobility is just one of a number of specialist shops that work with regulatory and medical bodies to put disabled drivers back behind the wheel. According to Tschritter, hand controls can be adapted in most vehicles, but the type of controls used have regional variations. Any disabled driver has to go through specific training to use hand controls, and instructors can prefer certain setups to teach on.

Once training is completed, the actual modifications usually take no more than a day or two to install. Lowered-floor vans or trucks equipped with lifts are much more involved builds, but they too are available, sometimes equipped with joystick systems, depending on the user's mobility level.

“It's all about regaining independence,” Tschritter adds.

Already, cars let us travel far faster and further than our own bodies. We can climb mountain passes and cross time zones, or we can scorch around a track, feeling the tug of g-forces. The freedom of the open road shouldn't be limited by whether the accelerator is under your right foot or your left hand.

For Wickens, this weekend will be a reward after a long, hard and public year of struggle. He has bared his soul on social media as he relearns how to walk. There are good days and bad days and long doldrums of minuscule progress. If you’re a fan, it can be hard to watch. Even if you don’t know a thing about auto racing, watching this young man grin and grit it out will put you firmly on Team Wickens.

You can expect him to keep chasing that independence, putting in the hours in physiotherapy to regain his ability to walk. And you can expect to find him behind the wheel, ready for his chance to race again, sharpening his skills to a razor's edge.

What you will not find is someone willing to let themselves be defined by what their body can or cannot do. Robert Wickens will race again. We have the technology. He has the will.

Wickens holds a Canadian flag as he celebrates his third-place finish at last year's Honda Indy.

The Canadian Press

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