TSO was very fortunate to be able to bring Brant James on to help us out on this super busy weekend. I (Steve) and Patrick will never pretend to be feature writers, but Brant is one of the best in the business. Exhibit A. is below.

By Brant James

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Robert Wickens rotated eagerly to his left and pulled in selfie-close with friend and teammate James Hinchcliffe. He was already smiling.

As the girl in the gray “Wickens 6” t-shirt snapped her souvenir and threaded the theater ropes to exit the IndyCar drivers autograph line on Friday, Wickens resumed scrawling his signature on anything placed on the table before him. Hero cards, t-shirts, hats.

Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver Robert Wickens takes part in the NTT IndyCar Series autograph session at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (Photo Courtesy of INDYCAR- Joe Skibinski)

It might not have been a completely banal day at the office for any of the drivers assembled in the midway inside the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg circuit. A season-opener incites a certain eagerness, especially with such a welcoming throng. But Wickens seemed to smile more than most and relish this more than most. He was different because he was lone among them in not wearing a fire suit in preparation for practice in less than an hour.

And then there was the wheelchair.

Two hundred and one days since Wickens sustained a thoracic spinal fracture, spinal cord injury, neck fracture, tibia and fibula fractures to both legs, fractures in both hands, fractured right forearm, fractured elbow, four fractured ribs and a pulmonary contusion after crashing into a catch fence at Pocono Raceway, the 29-year-old Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver was back at a race track for the first time. One year ago at this race course, Wickens had been a veteran rookie of sorts, given his breadth of experience in sports cars, who announced his intentions in IndyCar by winning the pole and battling Alexander Rossi for the win on the final lap. He was sixth in the driver standings before the crash with Ryan Hunter-Reay began a comeback from paralysis marked with surprising progress recently that he hopes will eventually allow him back into a race car.

This year, though buoyed by what has admittedly looked and felt like incredible progress – “sexy steps,” he calls them – Wickens’ race weekend activities included almost every normal item except driving. Hinchcliffe knew it could not be normal at all.

“I think coming into it he thought it was going to be a normal day,” he said of Friday. “I saw him [Thursday] night and I was like, ‘Man, you haven’t been out in public yet, really. And I know how often I get stopped just getting asked about you. The fact that you’re going to be there, this is not going to be a normal day at the race track for you.’”

A spate of inaccurate and unauthorized reporting about his condition prompted Wickens’ family to release the full extent of his injuries. He chose to document his recovery on social media, Hinchcliffe said, partly because so little was available online to guide him. In doing so, he became a rarity for athletes in general and race car drivers particularly in revealing such vulnerability. Wickens learned the result of that in very personal proximity after arriving at the track.

“He’s seen the messages online and the messages he’s gotten and all the rest of it, but to be in a big group, to be in public and really see that human connection is a special thing,” said Hinchcliffe, whose every move was mobbed at St. Petersburg in 2016 in his first race since a horrific crash practicing for the Indianapolis 500. “And it’s a bit overwhelming. You don’t realize how many people are paying attention, and in his case, especially, taking inspiration from what he’s done.

“It’s not just the casual fan. It’s the people who are injured and people who are sick that are really getting inspiration from Robby, and that’s an element that he didn’t realize. And I experienced some of that as well and that’s the most rewarding thing. You’re just trying to get yourself better but at the same time inspiring other people to get better and motivate them to stick with it in a bad situation, that’s something that’s a knock-on bonus of the whole thing.”

Hinchcliffe marveled at his friend’s schedule this weekend. He’d not been nearly as ambitious when he visited his hometown race in Toronto just a few months after his life-threatening internal injuries.

Friend and teammate James Hinchcliffe in his firesuit, interacts with Robert Wickens in his return to the NTT IndyCar Series paddock (Photo Courtesy of INDYCAR- Joe Skibinski)

“I was still probably a bit premature. Robbie is Robbie and Robbie is happy and healthy in a lot of ways,” Hinchcliffe said. “I was still a little premature, probably to be at the track, so I did nothing. I walked from my bus to the grid and the only appearance I did was with Make-A-Wish and Honda Canada.

“I kind of kept my schedule clean. He has a busier schedule than any driver here this weekend. He’s really filled it up. He’s so appreciative of what he’s gotten from everyone he’s trying to give back now. He’s on a much more noble program than I was my first day back.”

Wickens said he “100 percent” intends to work hard enough to return as a driver, but he’s cognizant that at some point his progress will plateau. He is already contemplating a return using hand controls like Alex Zanardi, who lost both legs in a 2001 CART crash. He seems more bothered by the notion that however, not whenever, he returns, he’ll have to cope with the reality of not being the same driver who raced with such daring and success in 2018.
“Anything is possible,” Wickens said. “I know I’m a hard worker, analytical. I think I could get on top of hand controls. My only fear is that I always wanted to get back into racing as I left off, on the same level that I left off. I don’t want to be just a driver in the field. I want to be one competing to win the podiums like I was when I went out. That’s kind of the main thing for me.”

Robert Wickens address the IndyCar media for the first time since his incident at Pocono Raceway (Photo Courtesy of INDYCAR- Joe Skibinski)

The autograph session over, Wickens whisked himself through the theater ropes and out into the midway, where his progress was stopped five times by well-wishers and autograph-seekers. A few related to Wickens how his attempt inspired them. Out of the bustle of the fan zone, the new routine continued in a secluded spot near where the race course curls right past Pioneer Park. After a pause, Wickens vaulted himself from his wheelchair into the passenger side of a waiting golf cart before his fiancée, Karli Woods, folded it as she has innumerable times and positioned it securely on the back.

A gate opened and Wickens was on to his next commitment, finding the new normal, still searching for the old one.