Road & Track (USA)
What Wickens Does
Robert Wickens is back behind the wheel. What does he do when he needs to get out?
Robert Wickens suffered a spinal-cord injury in a horrific 2018 Indycar crash at Pocono Raceway and has been working in rehab for the past few years to regain the use of his legs. For 2022, Wickens is driving a Hyundai Elantra N TCR adapted with hand controls for Bryan Herta Autosport in IMSA’S Michelin Pilot Challenge series. How does he handle an escape? “Like every driver in IMSA, you have to prove you can get out of the car in a timely and expedited manner,” he says. His challenge? “The obvious: not being able to use my legs. If I am involved in an accident, I wait in the car until the safety crew arrives. Unless it’s an emergency—then I get myself out.” IMSA says it evaluates each driver on a case-by-case basis to ensure that the sanctioning body is comfortable with a driver’s unique situation and that each driver is knowledgeable about and comfortable with its process. While Wickens hasn’t had to escape yet, the team practices procedures for a quick exit during each race weekend.
The gulf between a normal guy who does track days and the pros widened once again.
By sheer coincidence, we saw this at the 12 Hours of Sebring, in the garage next to Glickenhaus, which housed the Team Penske No. 5 WEC LMP2 car. First responders pulled driver Felipe Nasr, playing dead, over and over, under the watchful eye of FIA personnel.
The Pfaff Motorsports Porsche team let me try a speedy escape in its buffalo-check 911 to see how I’d stack up in an emergency situation. At five feet seven, I’m an ideal height for a racing driver, but I’m not exactly on the same training program. Porsche factory driver Matt Campbell laid out a basic plan of attack: swing out ass first, sit on the roll cage, then grab the upper portion of the cage to free yourself. I stuck with it. Though I executed with far less elegance than the Australian, I felt pretty good about how I did, exiting in 9.3 seconds. That’s a full two seconds off the FIA’S acceptable time. That may not sound like much, but a racing suit will prevent burns for only so long. Campbell then told me that 9.3 seconds was his and teammate Mathieu Jaminet’s record for a full driver change. Taking into account fastening belts, connecting radios, and everything else that comes with a driver change, that means I’m nearly three times slower than Campbell at just getting out.
I also sat in the No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing Acura ARX-05 DPI. As with all modern prototypes, the Acura is based around a central carbon monocoque with tall, wide sills, and the cockpit is virtually shrink-wrapped around the driver. This combination makes getting in and out a real struggle. You have to push yourself up with your arms to come out of the seat, then slide across the monocoque. The MSR team didn’t let me try it at speed, though I wouldn’t have been able to get out quickly anyhow.
The gulf between a normal guy who does track days and the pros widened once again. Stoffel Vandoorne, subbing for Helio Castroneves, didn’t take long to execute a quick escape at nearly the same speed as full-timers Tom Blomqvist and Oliver Jarvis. That speaks to the general fitness of top-tier race-car drivers. No driver I spoke with does specific physical training for getting out of the car, as their typical regimens leave them well prepared. Getting out quickly requires good arm and upperbody strength, flexibility, and agility.
In Earnhardt’s case, something major went wrong. Race cars are supposed to withstand an impact without immolating, and thankfully, that sort of thing doesn’t happen much these days (Romain Grosjean’s horrifying 2020 F1 crash being the most notable recent exception). But a lot still went right. The Corvette’s crash structure held strong, and Earnhardt’s personal safety equipment prevented serious injury. He and his co-driver for the weekend, Boris Said, almost assuredly practiced driver changes and escape protocols, so getting out of the car in a hurry was second nature.
Maybe this particular instance had something of the paranormal about it. Even so, Earnhardt had an exit plan.