Wickens to drive parade lap at Toronto with hand controls

Robert Wickens drove a custom Acura NSX this week in Toronto. (IndyCar/Joe Skibinski)
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TORONTO (AP) — Robert Wickens has attacked his rehabilitation from a spinal cord injury with aggressive goals. The Canadian wants to dance at his upcoming wedding, one day walk again with zero evidence his legs once did not work and, of course, Wickens hopes to return to racing cars.

Nearly a year after his devastating injury in an IndyCar race, Wickens will get to drive a car again at a track. He will lead the parade lap Sunday before the Toronto IndyCar race in an Acura NSX equipped with hand controls.

"It's just been quite the ride and we are not even one year in of what's going to be a very long recovery," Wickens said Friday. "Hopefully, I can keep on driving because I think that's the best therapy I can have. I am a little bit concerned by how eager I am to get back in the car."

Wickens got a chance Thursday to drive the car — he thanked Honda for trusting him with the $157,000 Acura — and said he quickly bent a wheel during his laps around Exhibition Place.

"I am notoriously hard on equipment," he laughed.

The modifications to the car were made by Arrow, sponsor of the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team Wickens drove for last season. In 2014, Arrow developed a Semi-Autonomous Motorcar (SAM) Car that allowed team owner Schmidt, who is paralyzed from the neck down, to get back in a car.

For Wickens' drive, Arrow devised a kit that controls the throttle and acceleration with a ring on the steering wheel and through software. The brake is a mechanical handbrake with the driver's right hand, there is no clutch and Wickens will shift using paddles on the steering wheel.

He's had roughly two hours behind the wheel of the car that included a shakedown this week at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park.

"In my head I've been thinking about this for hours and hours and hours at night while I was in rehab," Wickens said. "I figured out how to throttle on the one side, brake on another side, and it was very important to me that my hands can't leave the steering wheel. So I was always thinking I'd have brake on one side, throttle on the other, and once I got on track, I quickly realized that I need to be able to access the throttle with both hands and access the brake with both hands."

Arrow also has updated the brakes, tires and seatbelts, and Arrow CEO Mike Long said the company is invested in getting Wickens back into a race car on a regular basis.

"I think everybody in the world was wondering is will Robert go fast again?" Long said. "I will tell you I don't think there's any question. We wanted to start this now with Robert so we can be a part of his rehab together with our friends at Honda and get Robby back to racing, because that's what he wants, and we're going to be there to support that effort all the way."

Talks began over the winter between Wickens and Arrow, which has developed technology that assists the driver but does not take control from the driver — an important distinction between independence over convenience. Arrow's celebrated "SAM" car has given Schmidt the opportunity to drive up Colorado's Pikes Peak, perform an exhibition at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and reach 190 mph on the runway at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, a speed record for a semi-autonomous vehicle.

Honda, sponsor for Sunday's race at Toronto, joined the project in March after meeting with Wickens and Arrow at the IndyCar season opening race. It provided the Acura NSX.

"It's just an amazing forward-looking product for a forward-looking platform. It is an electrified vehicle, so it has interesting opportunities, I think, to be responsive as we move forward with some of these next steps," Ted Klaus, President of Honda Performance Development, said of the Acura. "I do hope that as Robby really enjoys re-learning how to control the car with his hands, I'm sure he's going to realize he's just using different parts of his brain and his body with this man-machine. It's his desire to get back to the relevant and to grow and challenge himself."

Wickens grew up in Guelph, Ontario, west of Toronto, and this weekend is considered his home race. He finished third last season — one of his five podium finishes in a remarkable rookie season cut short six laps into the 14th race of the year. He was racing at Pocono in Pennsylvania when contact with another car launched Wickens into the fence. He was left paralyzed from the waist down and his injuries included a thoracic spinal fracture, neck fracture, tibia and fibula fractures to both legs, four fractured ribs and a pulmonary contusion.

Most of his rehabilitation is being done in Denver, near Arrow's Colorado headquarters, but he has been able to travel more and attend IndyCar races as a consultant to the team.

He will be accompanied on his parade lap by fiancee Karli Woods, who will be in the passenger seat in front of their hometown crowd.

"Obviously, being in front a hometown crowd, with friends and family around, it makes it even more special," Wickens said. "In the winter when we first started planning this, the goal was always to have everything ready for Toronto."

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