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Robert Wickens Returns to Victory Lane

(Photo: Sam Draiss | The Podium Finish)

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — After a hard-fought battle with Tim Lewis over the final 14 minutes, Mark Wilkins and his No. 33 Hyundai Elantra crossed the finish line to win the Tioga Downs 120 for Bryan Herta Autosport W/ Curb Agajanian in IMSA Touring Car.

Behind the pit box, co-driver Robert Wickens turned around, shook hands with his team and celebrated. It seemed like any typical win.

But it was far from that.

Nearly four years ago, Wickens nearly lost his life in a horrific IndyCar crash at Pocono Raceway. He suffered many broken bones, including a fracture to his neck and spine. The crash paralyzed him from the waist down.

Many thought that Wickens would never race again. But, after three years of rehab, Wickens was well enough to drive using hand controls. He tested an IMSA Michelin Pilot Touring Car in 2021, and in January, Bryan Herta Autosport signed him to a full-time deal.

And now, for the first time since before his crash, Wickens is a winner.

“I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet,” Wickens said. “[I’m] at a bit of a loss for words. Just been a really great day.”

After issues in Friday’s qualifying session, Wickens had time to record just one lap. He qualified the car in third place and stayed in the mix throughout the first half of the race.

Wickens opened the race in the car and long caution in the first hour delayed the driver switch. With around 55 minutes left in the two-hour race, Wilkins finally replaced Wickens. Once the driver swap period cycled through, Wilkins had the lead.

As the race clock ticked down, the No. 73 car driven by Ryan Eversley stopped on the track and caused late caution. With 14 minutes to go, the race restarted with Wilkins as the leader. Lewis closed on Wilkins’ back bumper during the final minutes but Wilkins maintained a 0.5-second lead.

On the final lap, Wilkins placed a block on Lewis on the backstretch to gain space going through the bus stop into the carousel. Exiting Turn 10, Lewis was close enough for one final try, but Wilkins pulled away to win his sixth Michelin Tire race.

“This one is pretty special,” Wilkins said. “This is where we should be, and hopefully, this is the start of our trend of lots of podiums and race wins for the balance of the season.”

Wilkens and Wilkins are sharing a car for the fourth time this season. Wilkins missed the last race at Mid-Ohio, but the two are developing well as a team.

“When Bryan [Herta] said ‘Hey, I think your teammate is going to be Robert Wickens,’ I thought ‘Wow, I hope he doesn’t mind driving with me,'” Wilkins joked. “I knew it was going to be a challenge early with the changes to the car, the hand controls, and him coming up to speed with that.

“Robbie [Wickens] and I have known each other for a while, but it’s a relatively new relationship working together. There’s a lot of new, and it always takes time for these things to gel. Daytona went really well and then we had some tough races. But, we always knew we had the pace. We knew we had the speed. We know we have the people to make it happen.”

(Photo: Sam Draiss | The Podium Finish)

Wickens has always had the skills to win races. In 2009, he won twice en route to a second-place finish in FIA Formula Two points. He won six DTM races between 2013 and 2017. Before the crash, he had four IndyCar podiums as one of the series’ top rookies.

Now, he’s a winner again after hard work and determination just to return behind the wheel.

“I didn’t forget how to drive. It was just trying to find the right opportunity to show that it was still possible,” Wickens said. “Deep down, I always thought I would return to racing quicker than I did. But, I also underestimated what goes into adapting a race car… I kind of thought when I was ready, I’d call someone and people would come running. But, that just wasn’t the case.

“Starting the year with a podium [at Daytona], I’m not going to lie, internally, I felt like I wasn’t surprised… Finally, to get the win, it was really satisfying.”

Bill Auberlen won the Grand Sport Class on Saturday co-driving with Dillon Machavern, and after the race, he congratulated Wickens in victory lane.

“I think it’s incredible. We all know he’s a great driver, but just finally to get over that hurdle and he gets this win,” Auberlen said. “I was close enough to watch how [Wickens and Wilkins] do their pit stops and they get [Wickens] out of the car and put him in the car. It’s really neat.”

Wilkens and Wickens will refocus and turn their attention to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park next weekend, a homecoming race for the two Canadian drivers. But, for now, they’ll enjoy Wickens’ monumental victory.

“I never think that I’m an inspirational person. I’m just trying to get back to what I love to do,” Wickens said. “It’s reassuring to myself that I can still win and compete and challenge… It’s just hopefully the beginning of what’s going to come.”

Nathan Solomon is a junior in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University. He serves as the managing editor for his campus newspaper, The BonaVenture, and as the programming director for his campus radio station, WSBU 88.3FM. The station is rated the No. 4 college radio station in the country by Princeton Review. Solomon started his journalism career in 2018 when he began covering hometown Cornell basketball for IvyHoopsOnline. In 2019, Solomon joined Empire Sports Media to contribute baseball content and started covering NASCAR for the outlet in 2020. In 2021, he covered his first two NASCAR races with Empire Sports Media. Solomon joined TPF in September of 2021 and became managing editor in spring of 2022. He is also an NMPA journalist.

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