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On the track, with Robert Wickens

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Robert Wickens By Adam Freill

He soots, he scores?


For most Canadian kids, playing ice hockey is a rite of passage, but a young Wickens found go-karting the fall before he was going to play his first year of Timbit hockey. ”My parents asked me if karting was what I really wanted to do, saying that if I wanted to do that, I wouldn’t be able to play hockey with my friends,” he recalled.

”I’ve actually never played in a hockey league,” he said with a laugh. ”I have played shinny, and I was in a ball hockey league until I moved to Indianapolis. Hockey is still one of my passions and is my second-favourite sport to motorsports, but I opted to take a different path.”

”My career would have never happened if we had to pay a mechanic to work on my karts. The fact that I had my brother and my dad there all the time was just awesome.”

For race car driver Robert Wickens, when it comes to motorsports, it’s a family affair. The native of Guelph, Ont., is in his first full IndyCar season, but he’s no stranger to racing. His path to the IndyCar cockpit has been long in the making, and he’s not one to take things for granted. He and his family have worked too long and hard for that.

Wickens’ first exposure to racing was through the Waterloo Regional Kart Club in 1997. It wasn’t long before he was winning series championships.

At 16, he started his formula racing career, racing extensively in Europe for the next 12 years, picking up numerous podium finishes and a pair of series championship wins along the way.

Prior to the start of the 2018 IndyCar season, Wickens joined his best friend, and fellow IndyCar driver, James Hinchcliffe on the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team, and it’s been a strong debut season.

All in the family; All for the family


Robert Wickens describes his family as pretty average, as far as Canadian families in Southwestern Ontario go. His father was a mechanic in a factory and his mom drove a school bus, and when it came to fostering their son’s passion for motorsports, they did all that they could to support him.

”Ultimately, I guess they saw my potential and how happy racing made me, and they would do anything they could to allow me to live my dream. They are the hardest working people I know.”

Wickens doesn’t hide the admiration that he holds for how much his parents did to allow him to race, and his gratitude also extends to his brother, Trevor, who took a part-time job working at a local kart shop to earn parts and tire credits for his race weekends.

”The amount of sacrifice that they gave in order for me to be able to live my dream is something that I will be forever grateful for and forever trying to pay them back for,” he said.

”If it wasn’t for them, my racing career would have lasted two years.” He and Trevor, who is now one of the most highly respected karting coaches and tuners in Canada, would ride their bikes to a local kart shop after school and work there from 4 until 9 p.m., go home, do their homework and then go to school the next day.

”That has made me the driver that I am today,” said Robert. ”I feel like I have never taken anything for granted. You need to work hard for everything.”

An early start


Wickens doesn’t really know why racing clicked for him, but he’s glad that it did, and that it pretty much found him at an early age.

”From what I have heard, I was a bit of a brat when I was a kid,” he laughed recalling his introduction to fast cars. ”I got a toy car that I just loved and from that point on, if there was a Formula 1 race on TV it was like I was hypnotized by the race.”

His parents would record races on VHS tapes, and would play them for him during the week.

”Kids would be watching Barney or Sesame Street, and I would be watching last weekend’s Formula 1 race,” he said. ”And then I would re-enact the race with my little toy cars and my carpet race track.”


DID YOU KNOW?
James Hinchcliffe was the May/June 2013 Mechanical Business cover celebrity. You can find that article in our back issues, available online at www.mechanicalbusiness.com.


Friends, on and off the track


This year’s racing season isn’t the first time that Wickens has paired up with fellow Canadian James Hinchcliffe. The two have been best friends for over a decade, first meeting at the kart track when Robert was 12 and Hinchcliffe 14.

”We were racing for the same team in karting,” said Wickens. ”We just hit it off. We became good friends instantly.”

What started off as hanging out at the racetrack soon turned into hanging out away from the track as well.

”We have kept a very strong relationship our whole lives even though our careers went in very different avenues for a while,” he shared. ”We stayed in very close contact, and now it is super cool that we both get to race Indy cars alongside each other.”

Knowing each other so well, and having similar formative years, has been a big plus for the team. They both like a similar setup to their cars, and approach driving in much the same way, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no fire to win when the two hit the track against each other.

”We’ve always had a very friendly competitive relationship. In karting, James would go and do a lap time and I would go ‘Oh yeah?’ and go out and up the bar, and he would go out and up the bar. It was constant; never ending,” said Wickens. ”We kept pushing each other our whole childhood, and it obviously made both of us better drivers. It is the same thing in IndyCar.”


Finding the podium at home


Racing in the only Canadian stop on this year’s IndyCar schedule, teammates Wickens and Hinchcliffe thrilled the local fans, finishing third and fourth, respectively. For Wickens, this was his third podium finish and ninth top-10 result in his rookie season in the series.

”Thankfully, I’m not an overly teary guy, but that was really cool,” he said of the ovation he received from the hometown crowd when he stepped out of the car. ”To stand on the podium in my first professional home race, I couldn’t ask for anything better.”