Virtual racing series has injured Canadian driver Robert Wickens back on the 'road'
'I want to compete. That's why I became a driver'
Canadian race car driver Robert Wickens is back behind the wheel, racing again against the same drivers that he used to race against every weekend on the IndyCar circuit.
Only now he's doing it from the basement of his Indianapolis home.
The 31-year-old, left paralyzed in a devastating 2018 racing crash, is racing using a sophisticated simulator, navigating the twisting turns of the Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama.
It's all part of IndyCar's virtual iRacing series.
"It's kind of a surreal experience, you know, for me, this is really step one to get back into the race car," Wickens, originally from Guelph, Ont., told CBC Sports.
WATCH | Robert Wickens returns to IndyCar in their virtual iRacing series:
It was Wickens's first taste of real competition since the crash at Pocono Speedway left him partially paralyzed and lucky to be alive. His goal has always been to race again.
When CBC Sports caught up with Wickens at his home last November, he was relearning how to walk, something doctors told him he would never do again.
The iRacing series is part of a grueling rehab process that continues to this day. Wickens said being in the simulator is like a real race, requiring the same physical stamina and laser focus he used on racing circuits around the world.
"If anyone who's played a racing game at home or in an arcade, or if you've gone to one of those facilities where you can try a real racing simulator, going an hour without crashing on a simulator is very, very hard," he said. "And it was just very rewarding to cross the finish line."
Both before and after his accident, Wickens used a simulator to stay sharp but says it will take some getting used to operating under real race conditions.
"The feeling is so much more different. It's a challenge," Wickens said. "It's going to take a lot of patience, a lot of perseverance. But luckily we're not really in a race against the clock to get back into a race car. "
WATCH | Robert Wickens and his fight to return to the cockpit:
The iRacing technology being used for these races has been around for about 15 years and has more than a 100,000 users worldwide. Most enjoy racing from their homes and offices, using less sophisticated equipment than Wickens and other professional drivers.
I’m getting back into a race car...virtually! Tmrw 2:30 EST <a href="https://twitter.com/IndyCar?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@IndyCar</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/iRacing?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@iRacing</a> challenge! I can’t thank these guys enough for helping me get everything sorted. <a href="https://twitter.com/SimCraft?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@SimCraft</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/sparco_official?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@sparco_official</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/ArrowMcLarenSP?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@arrowmclarensp</a> Arrow Electronics <a href="https://twitter.com/AERO_Paint?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@aero_paint</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/maxpapis?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@maxpapis</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/simcraft?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#simcraft</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/INDYCARChallenge?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#INDYCARChallenge</a> <a href="https://t.co/v8vCFnRWQZ">pic.twitter.com/v8vCFnRWQZ</a>—@robertwickens
But the company's partnership with IndyCar and NASCAR and its ability to create a real life experience has captured the imagination of drivers and fans.
"There's lots of games out there, but we do things a little different where we're focused on truly being as authentic and as real as possible," said Kevin Bobbitt, iRacing's marketing director. "We laser scan our tracks so there's millimetre accuracy — every crack, every bump, every curb that a driver would experience in the real world."
As the coronovirus pandemic has grinded the sports world to a halt, many leagues have struggled to find a way to connect with and remain relevant to their fans. The NBA and MLB are trying video game tournaments among their respective sports' biggest stars.
Bobbitt said car racing is unique because high-level success requires the same abilities drivers require during an actual professional race.
"What's different is if you play NBA 2K or FIFA — and I love those games — but none of those skills translate. Using your thumbs to move a soccer ball around is nothing like playing real soccer," Bobbitt said. "So while other sports will do some online tournaments, I don't know that their athletes will be the best at it. I just don't know. It's a different skill set."
Today was a lot of fun! Happy with being in the top 10, can’t wait for next weekend. Here’s a little clip of how I get into my sim. Thanks again <a href="https://twitter.com/SimCraft?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@SimCraft</a> ! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/INDYCARChallenge?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#INDYCARChallenge</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/iracing?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#iracing</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/ArrowMcLarenSP?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@ArrowMcLarenSP</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/indycar?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#indycar</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/IndyCar?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@IndyCar</a> <a href="https://t.co/jCjNJ1jMJR">pic.twitter.com/jCjNJ1jMJR</a>—@robertwickens
So far fans have responded. More than 165,000 tuned in for a virtual race on April 4, about half of a usual Indy audience. NASCAR numbers have been even higher.
IndyCar CEO Mark Miles said he was initially skeptical about the idea and worried it wouldn't translate well to television.
"It is really getting to a younger audience," Miles said. "In my mind, it's starkly different than what most broadcasters are having to do now, which is showing maybe cut-down old sport but not live.
"And it is so realistic. And then it's particularly fun to see how competitive and excited the drivers are to have a chance to get out on track."
For Wickens, it's a chance to show that after all he's been through, he can still go fast.
"I think my neurocognitive stuff is not what it was when I was in my prime of my career a couple of years ago," he said. "But, you know, that's the great thing with the human body, with some simple training, it can all come back."
Wickens said this all just another stop on his comeback journey, one that he envisions ending on a real track, in a real car. And hopefully in the winner's circle.
"I don't want to come back as some kind of marketing campaign where I'm just driving around. I want to compete. That's why I became a driver."
with files from Michael Drapack