Robert Wickens takes a breath, shifts his weight, and sends a thin leg swinging forward. For a single weightless moment, the paralyzed man appears to be walking.

Then his sneaker lands, catches on the edge, stutters across the treadmill’s slow belt. One of the three cheerful therapists kneeling around him reaches out, correcting the situation with a practiced hand. His foot swings back, he takes another step, and the process repeats.

This story appears in the July, 2019 issue of Road & Track. - Ed.

There has been help for months. He is helped into the fabric harness that suspends him above the treadmill, helped into the van that takes him to the rehab hospital six mornings a week. Several states away, his Indianapolis home is being retrofitted for accessibility, which will let him live there with less help. His fiancée, Karli Woods, is home now, helping manage that process.

Wickens does not know when, or if, the help will end. Nor does he remember when it began, the moment last August when a small team of safety workers helped him from the Dallara DW12 IndyCar that went into the fence at Pocono, fractured his spine, and almost killed him. He remembers what it feels like to use his feet, however, and he wants to use them again. He admits to being stubborn; he could drive a car equipped with hand controls tomorrow, but that isn’t what he wants. He wants what doctors cannot guarantee he will have. He wants his legs back.

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Giles Clement

When Wickens had his legs, he was exceptional in a race car. Marshall Pruett, the dean of American road-racing journalists and a longtime R&T contributor, labeled him "one of the most promising talents to hit the sport in years," the sort of hunter-killer you see once a generation. IndyCar pundit Robin Miller, a hard-boiled circuit fixture for decades, calls Wickens a rare natural. "I don’t know that there’s been anybody in recent memory," he says, "other than maybe Mario, who was more impressive as a rookie out of the gate."

Wickens, 30, needed that talent, because he did not come from money. He grew up in the quiet Toronto suburb of Guelph, where his father repaired machinery in a factory and his mom drove a school bus. He started in karts at the age of seven, with his brother Trevor as mechanic and his father as team manager. Six years later, his parents sold their house to fund his career.

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Giles Clement

He distinguished himself by work ethic: studying data, tactics, and technique, trying to make up for the funding he lacked. It paid off. In 2006, he won the Formula BMW USA championship. He won in Formula Atlantic, in Formula 2, in GP3, and in World Series by Renault. In 2011, he stormed his way to the Formula Renault 3.5 title, beating F1-bound Daniel Ricciardo and future Indy star Alexander Rossi. His qualifying and result sheets for some years have so many 1s and 2s, they look like typos from a stuck keyboard. He spent six years and 84 starts driving DTM cars for the Mercedes-Benz factory team, landing six wins, five poles, and 15 podiums—a strong record in an insular, homegrown environment where the cars are almost as complex and particular as in Formula 1. He was human and funny without being obnoxious, and fans loved him.

Mercedes folded its DTM team in 2017, choosing to invest instead in the FIA’s Formula E electric-racing start-up. Wickens moved to Indianapolis, where Schmidt Peterson Motorsports had offered him an IndyCar ride as a teammate to childhood friend James Hinchcliffe.

The odds were long. IndyCar has a history of humbling drivers who have shone elsewhere. Yet the first race of the season, at St. Petersburg in March, gave Wickens pole position on rain-slicked pavement. He led most of the laps that followed, only losing that lead, with two laps to go, when another driver punted him into a wall.

Half the paddock did a double take at the raw potential on display, but the half that knew the man’s résumé just nodded. At the next event, in Phoenix, in his first oval start, Wickens battled for first before finishing second.

The pace was a surprise, he says; in photos taken after the checker, his eyes glow with joy. But the rest of the season shines even brighter in proper context. Wickens drove for a historically midpack team on tracks he had mostly never seen. The majority of his prior career had come on manicured European road courses, not ovals, and he had never put a car into a 200-mph corner. And while the Dallara was engineered to be versatile, its design is a compromise that can take time to exploit. The car can feel small and fragile when you sling it around a superspeedway, inches from walls, and a few days later, you might be hammering that same tub around a claustrophobic place like Mid-Ohio, where a fast lap is like flying a 737 in a state park.

None of this mattered. The guy lit up the place. The rest of his 2018 made for a virtual clip show of gutsy moves. By that May, when Wickens finished the Indy 500 and notched that race’s honors for rookie of the year, the surprise was almost certainly gone.

"Some guys can excel in different formulas and open-wheel," Miller says, "but they get to IndyCar and the speed’s overwhelming, and they just don’t adapt. He never batted an eye. It was like he was made for it."

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Giles Clement

Rehab hospitals are not like ordinary hospitals. They are often outpatient, for one. Some of the best have well-equipped exercise rooms that would shame an expensive health club. You show up every day, do your business with a therapist, and go home. The Western spinal center that Wickens attends specializes in long-term rehab—generally stints of 30 to 90 days—often followed by lifelong recuperation. He has been there, week after week, since last fall. The building is unavoidably cheery, wearing a hospital’s clothing but also deeply unlike one, all large windows and tree-dappled light. Young men and women shuffle about with walkers and joystick motorized wheelchairs through hallways.

As the PA plays old hip-hop, Wickens stretches on a low padded table. After a few minutes, a therapist arrives and helps him into something called a zero-gravity treadmill. The machine looks like a small bouncy house that tried to eat a piece of gym equipment and gave up halfway through—a translucent plastic bubble encapsulates most of the treadmill’s belt and base, helping support the user’s lower torso. The bits inside the bubble resemble a harness, because almost everything in this room has a safety harness, because you don’t just teach your body to walk again without backup. The strain is obvious; Wickens tenses as he walks, eyes narrow.

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Giles Clement

He does not talk much during any of this, but there was talking earlier, over lunch. Cafeteria food in a hospital courtyard.

"There’s no progression," he said. A head shake and a tight smile as he momentarily picked at his food. "There’s no timeline, no scale. Nothing telling me I’m on pace or not. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever experienced. You break your leg, you know, it’s six to nine weeks or whatever. Go to rehab, you’re back to full strength, easy-peasy."

Modern medicine still views spinal-cord injuries as a little mysterious. Like traumatic brain injuries, their aftereffects and healing processes remain only partly understood. Two people of the same age can be injured in the same way and put in the exact same rehab effort but recover differently, improving at different paces and capping at different levels of ability. Nerve regeneration is the central limiter: If the spinal cord is the body’s wiring harness, the nerves are the wires, and humans do not rewire easy. It’s common for the nerve-rebuild process to essentially plateau after a couple of years, but breakthroughs have been documented four or five years after an injury.

"You never know when it stops," he said. "I could wake up tomorrow and plateau. Or for the next five years, I could make slow progress. Or somehow, I have this miraculous nerve regeneration tomorrow and my legs are frickin' flying. It’s just crazy."

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Giles Clement

His thoughts come out in paragraphs, fully formed and often peppered with medical terms. He has always been analytical, he says, and a little compulsive. "But some of this stuff, I don’t even know how to relate. Activate your glutes? Think about that muscle? How do I do that? What does that even mean?

"It’s almost the angel and the devil on your shoulders—the positivity guy and the other one. The big thing is to just keep moving forward. Getting back in a race car is important, but that’s not really what’s driving me, because I know I can get into a race car without legs. It’s been proven. Great people have done it."

As a stubborn person, I said, this thinking sounds familiar.

"What’s driving me is stubbornness: I want to race as I remember racing. I want to walk in a way that no one knows there’s something wrong with me," he said.

"Therapists keep recommending leg braces and ankle braces to make my walking smoother. I keep saying no. If I put a brace on that helps my foot take a better step, that foot’s not learning how to do it. It’s an aid, like an engineer saying, 'You’re too dumb, and you keep getting wheelspin. Here’s traction control.'"

Aids are not without merit, I offered. Some crutches get you moving.

"Honestly, it’s also probably embarrassment. I know that running is probably not my future. But I don’t want to be that person walking through the mall where everyone goes, 'Oh God, what’s wrong with him?' They don't know my story, and I should be proud that I’m even walking, but it’s just the perfectionist in me. And then there’s the competitive side. I want to be the best spinal recovery in the history of spinal recovery."

He smiled, that thin-lipped smile again.

"I’m not expecting to walk, but I’m so focused on that one goal that it’s hard not to expect to. I’m just hoping so damn hard that the cards fall in a way that my body allows me to at least try."

"I want to be the best spinal recovery in the history of spinal recovery."

At age 16, in 2005, Wickens went to the Formula BMW world finals in Bahrain. The event cost $50,000 to enter, but the winner earned a test with BMW’s Formula 1 team. He thought he should go. His parents weren’t so sure. This is literally all the budget you have for next year. Did he really want to gamble that on one race? Yes, he did.

He qualified on pole in Bahrain, but a tech infraction caused his time to be disallowed before the race. In a 35-car field, he was knocked to last place. Wickens dismantled the pack anyway, finishing sixth while cracking off fastest lap in all three heats. The effort earned him a conversation with, and some next-season funding from, legendary Red Bull driver-development chief Helmut Marko.

I mentioned that story, what it means to a certain kind of racing person, to see that type of spark. Wickens shook his head.

"I know a lot of people say the same thing about themselves, but I’ve always been so close to extraordinary. So many times."

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Wickens, with fiancée Karli, at the 2019 Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
Giles Clement

Journalists have asked him about the accident. Sports reporters, Good Morning America, mostly mainstream people and mostly the same predictable questions. That subtle, condescending implication: You are ultimately a dim-bulb thrill-seeker, you somehow don’t value your life.

"The thing is, I think fans, even drivers, they want… IndyCar because there’s that risk factor," Wickens said. "To go faster through a corner without being scared, it’s something special. That moment of breaking through a fear barrier at 240 mph.

"Just committing to the car, trusting it... It’s almost like that leap fall, or... what is it?"

Trust fall?

"Trust fall. Leap of faith. That moment where everything is telling you take your foot off the throttle, you idiot, but you just somehow push your hand down on your leg. Like, 'Nope, we’re doing this. Hang on.' Then you get through it.

"Maybe I took too many risks too quickly. I think it paid off for a while, but I remember, every qualifying on an oval, I went into the thing having no idea how it was going to go. Didn’t know if I was going to crash, qualify 24th, or throw it in the top five. You did free practice on used tires or whatever. And then finally, it’s the first time you have clean track to yourself—you have your warm-up lap, and then bam, one lap to qualify, and you hope the tires are there."

One lap before the tires go off. When the car grows slower but also dances around more, has far less grip, flirts with… well, with things you don’t want it to do.

"Pocono qualifying was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life," Wickens said.

We went back to talking about the rehab process. After a few minutes, he rested his hands on the side of his chair and grew silent for a moment.

"The bottom of all of this," he said, "is that I’ve never run blindly into a fire like this."

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The crash at Pocono.
TODD DZIAODOSZ

It was the seventh lap of a 500-mile, 200-lap race at Pocono Raceway, one of the fastest tracks on the calendar, in a fast, banked left designed to resemble the squared-off corners at Indy. Wickens was attempting to pass Ryan Hunter-Reay, an IndyCar veteran. He feinted up the inside, what the British call "having a look," then dipped forward again. The two cars drew closer for a moment, and Wickens’s outside front wheel brushed Hunter-Reay’s inside rear. It was a graze, but a graze can mean a lot while loaded in a corner. The was enough to spin Hunter-Reay down and forward, a relatively slow pivot. Wickens’s Dallara then rode up over one of Hunter-Reay’s still-spinning front tires, launching into the air.

On the video, the car seems to spin improbably and for far too long, high off the ground, pinwheeling against the catch fence as if held by an unseen hand. There is so much shredded carbon fiber that the scene appears to have been bombed with confetti. By the time Wickens came to rest against Pocono’s inside wall, his Dallara had been reduced to little more than its dolphin-shaped carbon tub.

The track’s CEO said later that no wreck in Pocono’s 47 years of racing had produced as large a hole in the fence. Cleanup and track repair took nearly two hours.

There was a hospital airlift. Wickens was awake, but his injuries included a thoracic spinal fracture, a spinal-cord bruise, a neck fracture, tibia and fibula fractures in each leg, fractures in both hands, a fractured right forearm, a fractured elbow, four fractured ribs, and a pulmonary contusion. Titanium rods were screwed into his spine to brace it. Six days after the crash, he was breathing without assistance. Reality took longer to acquire. For a while, he says, waking and dreaming were hard to separate. He didn’t realize he was paralyzed until later, while lying in the ICU. A little rolling table sat nearby, the hospital kind that reaches over the bed, and Wickens needed to move it in order to grab his iPad. The table kept getting stuck on something.

His brother Trevor, his old kart mechanic, happened to be in the room.

"Rob," Trevor said gently, "that’s your leg."

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Wickens in discussion as team owner Sam Schmidt looks on.
Giles Clement

The community around him had some idea of what he would face. Wickens’s team owner, former IndyCar driver Sam Schmidt, became quadriplegic in an accident at Walt Disney World Speedway in 2000. There is this notion with drivers, Schmidt says, that tragedy is "not something they can’t overcome with sheer determination and perseverance—like in the rest of their lives." (If nothing else, Schmidt is familiar with this. His first doctor after the accident told his wife that he would spend the rest of his life in a nursing home, and that it would likely be short.)

Wickens’s teammate and childhood friend, Hinchcliffe, crashed during practice for the 2015 Indy 500. A suspension A-arm plunged through Hinchcliffe’s legs and came to rest in his pelvis, piercing one femoral artery and pinning him in the seat. Four months, two surgeries, and one recovery from a serious neck injury later, Hinchcliffe was back in a Dallara, testing at Road America, the fastest road course on the schedule.

Above: Our Marshall Pruett chats with Wickens, Schmidt, and Hinchcliffe.

"We’re wired wrong," he told the Indy Star, about that day. "I probably should have felt more anxiety than I did."

Hinchcliffe got a lot of media attention, and his Google results now focus on two aspects of his life: the 2015 crash and his time on Dancing with the Stars. Take those away, and he is like most IndyCar drivers, which is to say, gladiators in a sport where grisly death is possible but general obscurity is a given.

The racing no longer matters all that much, even in these pages. We’re occasionally gifted a man like Robert Wickens, as much of a weapon as a Foyt or a Mario or the other names America once knew as household words, blasting onto grids like a tornado—and the grandstands are empty. You wonder why the mainstream media only notices drivers when they hit the wall. Even if you know the answer.

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Giles Clement

I have a hard time blocking out the left knee. I feel like I have to get on top of it with my hip, leaning forward… That’s not right."

Wickens is seated on a low, padded exercise table, talking softly, walker in arm’s reach. He is in a large gym, his voice quiet but the room so empty that his words echo off the walls. A small stream of wires extends from a black box on his hip into his clothing, connected to electrodes that stimulate his muscles. The gym’s floor has been covered in a rubberized traction coating that occasionally snags your shoes as you walk. Wickens’s therapist sits nearby.

"That’s why I leave my hand on that knee," she says. "If one of them is going to go, that’s it."

"I struggled a lot on the back," he says. "My foot, moving like this."

He demonstrates, moving his leg, and she nods. Then Wickens lifts himself up to the walker and begins doing tight laps of the room, a version of the tighter, coiled movement from the treadmills, his upper body carrying much of the weight. The laps consume the better part of an hour. At the beginning of the session, his feet bounce a bit on the toe as each step lands, the heel popping up like an echo; toward the end, muscles warmed, they fall and stay put.

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Giles Clement

I am reminded, standing in that gym, of Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher and that old line about Wayne Gretzky, how he saw the whole ice better than anybody else. And the subtle motivation behind why anyone has ever climbed into a racing car—a kind of optimism, believing that the next day, the next lap, will be better than the last.

"Right now," Wickens told me earlier, "the point is that I am alive. During all my career moves and fumbles, honestly, there were times when I was pretty miserable. My first couple years of DTM, I was still focused on Formula 1. I don’t think I would have been an F1 star—not because of talent, just timing."

A lot of drivers say that, I noted, but most—it took me a moment to figure out how to put this—do not add the timing part. His head wagged a little, almost a shake but not quite.

"I’ve learned to race just for the fulfillment—as long as you’re in your moment and enjoying it, you’ll get the best outcome you can. You see it so often—a driver has that first baby, a first newborn, and the next weekend, they go and win. My opinion is because... this racing is bullshit and there’s something bigger in life.

"I had to work so damn hard to make a professional career, hustle like, I feel, no driver’s had to hustle. I couldn’t be further from the silver spoon. I know what my family sacrificed; from 12 years old, there was no turning back. Luckily, I loved it so much that I never thought about it."

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Giles Clement

The hospital’s PR woman walks us to the lobby, where she and Wickens discuss the rest of his day. More exercise appointments, and then the local news is showing up. Cameras and an interview, and does he need anything for that?

May is coming, the month of the Indy 500. There will be media requests, and his face suggests he knows it. Likely more asks than this time last year.

That’s the cruelty of sport, and it has always been that way. We look to athletes to give us something beyond our reach—victories, triumphs, even just the clarity of battle. Partly because there are no winners or losers in normal life, just the dull grind of the everyday. When we see someone lose that sharpness or the ability to access it, it’s tempting to want to transpose the clarity to whatever it was that pulled them from the fight to begin with.

But you can’t. So the guy who fought just keeps moving and moving and moving some more after that.

Before he pushes off, Wickens glances up at me, shrugging again, into a grin.

"Everyone wants a slice," he laughs, "once you break your legs." Then he turns and heads for the exercise room, leaving us and the empty gym behind.