Robert Vicens uses hand controls at the IMSA sports car race last weekend for his first win since a 2018 spinal cord injury Temporarily ended his racing career.
In England, former IndyCar driver Sam Schmidt completed the hill climb at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in a special McLaren 720S Spyder. The car was modified by Arrow Electronics, the primary sponsor of the Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar team, so that Schmidt, a quadriplegic since the 2000 accident, could use a straw-like “sip and puff” device to accelerate and brake.
Also at Goodwood, motorcycle racer Wayne Rainey rode the same bike he used when he won his final championship in 1992. Rainey was paralyzed from the chest down in a 1993 crash, and modifications to his motorcycle include pseudo-training wheels that allow him to ride using only his hands.
“It was a great weekend for disability awareness,” Vicens said.
Schmidt and Rainey have been part of previous projects that modified the vehicles they could pilot. Vicens’ situation is entirely different in that after his airborne IndyCar crash at Pocono nearly four years ago thinking his career was over, he returned to competition this year.
He drives a Hyundai Elantra N-TCR equipped with hand controls for Brian Herta Autosport in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge. He shares the car with co-driver Mark Wilkins, a fellow Canadian who closed Saturday’s win at Watkins Glen.
The duo debuted in January at the Rolex 24 in Daytona with a podium finish.
“It’s like riding a bike, but it’s a very different bike, I think that’s the best way to describe it,” Vicens said of racing with hand controls. “Racing has been my life since I was 7 years old. When I was racing in IndyCar in 2018, I worked very hard to get to that level.
“And after the accident, I knew I’d have to work hard to get back on that. I didn’t know what it would look like for me. I didn’t know if I could get straight back to IndyCar or I had to go- Cart has to start over, just like you do as a kid. The full recovery was just an unknown.”
Because he is required to be physically taken out of the car during a driver change, he has not yet been behind the wheel to cross the finish line and close a race. Herta told The Associated Press that could change as early as Saturday, when Vicens races at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.
Herta said it’s faster for Vicens to start the race because getting him out of the car is more efficient than driving him to the pit wall and taking him to the seat during driver changes.
“Robby will stop racing this year, he can do it,” said Herta. “He may do the same this weekend.”
Vicens is just thrilled to be running again and, at 33, is enjoying one of the greatest times of his life. Herta and Hyundai have reunited him, and Vicens and his wife, Karli, are expecting their first child in the next two weeks.
He is racing in Canada for the first time since 2018, when he finished third on Toronto’s downtown streets. Two races later, he suffered a spinal injury.
“It just feels great. I’m always happiest when I’m behind the wheel of a race car,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a lot of PR and a lot of press around it It’s a tense race along. The second time you put on your helmet and close that door, it’s just peace to me and I can finally just get in the zone and race and it’s my life for most of my life. A place of happiness.
“Life is so good, it’s like you’re living a dream sometimes.”
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