Race Car Driver Paralyzed in Fiery Crash Returns (Virtually) to the Track During Coronavirus

‘The biggest thing that everyone always warn me with paralysis is you never make 100 percent recovery. So the goal is to get as close to 100 percent as possible,” Wickens says. “But in terms of how far you'll get, you don't know. So I knew at a very early stage that there was always going to be something compromised for the rest of my life. I felt like, if I worked hard, I could limit that.”

He wasn’t alone either.

“I’m a believer of positive mindset can breed positive outcomes, and this whole time I had such great people around me,” he says. “My wife was amazing, my family was amazing, the whole IndyCar community — all of the fans and the press and everyone was always so supportive. And honestly, I don't know how my outcome would have been if I didn't have that support system.”

“I knew I was paralyzed and I knew there was a chance I could walk again,” Wickens says, “and I just put my head down and started putting in the work.”

As his wife wrote on Instagram last February: “I am just in awe …. It’s crazy how much progress he is making.”

Back on the Track

For months before he began racing with a simulator, Wickens knew that’s where his driving would take him. It was a question of how — and how to pay for it — until the launch of IndyCar’s virtual racing series in March got everything moving “very quickly.”

“It was like, ‘This is a great opportunity. I can race with everyone right now if we had a simulator,’ “ Wickens says. An Atlanta-based company called SimCraft “put their hand up and said, ‘We'd love to help. What do you need?’ ”

“They came to our home, fully sanitized with masks, and they did a full day-and-a-half installation,” Wickens says.

The finished product can be almost deceptively immersive. “You can drive for half an hour and just not even really think that you're driving a video game,” he says.

The adjustment is an adjustment, after more than year out of competition.

Back in April, “I just collapsed on the couch after the race and I think I slept like three hours after. I was just drained,” Wickens says.

IndyCar’s iRacing Challenge ended on Saturday (Wickens didn’t make the cut for the final competition) but his career hopes haven’t ended.

There are still mental obstacles — after decades of almost automatic use of his feet to operate the gas and brakes, it’s a stutter-step now to remember to use his hands — as well as physical ones. (Using the brake with his hand, over and over and over, takes a toll one might not expect.) But where else would Wickens be?

Speaking to PEOPLE from the backyard of his Indianapolis home, he says the pandemic has made him reflective. And appreciative.

“You can think like, ‘I’m just so lucky that I had that opportunity.’ And because I had that opportunity, I tried so hard to maximize it,” he says. “I wasn't going to take it for granted. And my body listened.”

He and Woods have been isolating since mid-March because of the coronavirus. He has diaphragm limitations since the crash that have made them more cautious around the contagious respiratory illness. Both of their families are still in Canada, past a border neither of them can now cross. Woods’ recent 30th birthday plans were similarly scuttled by the need to socially distance. But there are some upsides, too. Wickens lightly notes, “We're hanging pictures that we never got around to.”

‘“It’s very easy to get stuck in a bit of a rut or a funk, where you don't see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. While he hasn’t been able to rehab the way he was before the pandemic, he still sets goals.

“You take it day by day, week by week and you hope, ‘I want to try to do the best this week.’ ”

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