The technological innovation in adapting racecars helped drivers who had suffered life-changing injuries return to the driving seat and win races and championships.
Alex Zanardi had both his legs amputated in 2001 after a CART crash at the Lausitzring. He went on to compete in GTs and touring cars for several years with prosthetic limbs. IndyCar team-owner and former driver Sam Schmidt became paralyzed below the neck after a crash in Walt Disney World Speedway. He completed the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb with a breathing apparatus to control the brake and throttle, and a camera which converted his head movements to steering output.
In 2018, Robert Wickens, who suffered a severe spinal cord injury from a high speed IndyCar oval crash in which he was severely injured, had repercussions that changed his life. It left the Canadian unable to drive using his legs, but with the aid of hand controls he managed to return to full-time racing in 2022 and won last year’s IMSA Pilot Challenge TCR title.
In each case, the technology was developed according to the needs of the individual driver, who had a previous motorsport experience. They are all inspiring stories of human resiliency and engineering. Wickens wants a so-called adaptive racing It should be possible for more people. He wants to make it a possible career start, and not just be a solution that is used for a few cases. According to data from the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center there are about 18,000 new cases in the United States of spinal cord injuries each year.
Some organisations are already paving the road to a more accessible adaptive sport. Team Brit in the United Kingdom has accepted several people who live with physical disabilities or have experienced life-changing injury, giving them an opportunity to race against competitors of normal abilities. The team created a hand-control system that can be removed to allow drivers of different physical abilities to race together in an endurance event. The team operates a variety of cars, including a McLaren 570S GT4 or a BMW M240i. Racecar Engineering has published a story on Team Brit.
READ MORE: How Team Brit’s adaptive racing technology works
Wickens uses hand controls to drive his Hyundai N TCR. The vehicle’s throttle-by-wire is operated with a metal paddle that can be applied on either side of the steering wheel. The brake is applied by pulling a large ring in front of the wheel. This is linked mechanically to the brake, which makes it easier for Wickens’ co-driver when he takes over. Wickens has raced in the IMSA Pilot Challenge for the past two years and the system has been fine-tuned. He has tried different machines but found it hard to customize the controls.
‘I think there’s an untapped market for it,’ Wickens tells Racecar Engineering. ‘There aren’t millions of us out there [in adaptive racing], but I think having the accessibility available would bring in a lot more interest.’
Wickens describes adaptive racing as an ‘undercover industry’ with lots of potential.
‘I would love if 10-15 years down the road I could have created a curriculum for how to do it. Because now, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the lowest level or the highest level: you get into a new car and it’s throttle, brake, clutch… right to left. You just have to learn the car and don’t have to think about the geography of anything.
‘Whereas with adaptive racing, every car I’ve driven has been different. The brake and throttle were in different places, as was the feeling and travel. Why is every car the same pedal orchestration and why can’t it be the same for hand controls? Why can’t there be an allocated box where the throttle has to be on the steering wheel?
‘From that point, any adaptive driver going from class to class would just need to learn the car and how to get the most out of it. Not learning the geography of where everything is on top of everything else.’
For a driver who uses hand controls, it is imperative to have a throttle mechanism that can be applied with either hand, so they can make various adjustments through the car’s centrally-mounted control panel without lifting off the gas.
‘You’ve always got to have freedom of having everything available on both sides of the wheel, ideally interconnected to each other,’ says Wickens. ‘That’s the good thing about the dual axis throttle: the sensor takes over whichever one has the most travel. If you need to switch hands and you’re not full throttle, you don’t have to guess where 50 percent throttle is.’
One potential challenge around bringing standardised adaptive racing equipment to market is that drivers’ physical needs can be extremely different. Wickens, however, believes there’s room to improve the adaptability to different cars. This would allow adaptive drivers to be able to test their skills with any race team.
‘I’m trying to work with engineering firms,’ he says. ‘When I was a junior driver going up through the ranks, I would be walking through the paddock with my helmet trying to convince you to let me drive your car.
‘But for us, that doesn’t exist anymore because you have to adapt the car and a lot goes into it. If we could have a full system that can all be portable in a suitcase, and you could say: “Here’s my stuff. I’ll test with you.” It needs to be included into the car, but it’s a system that can adapt from car to car.
‘What I use in TCR wouldn’t work in a GT3 car. It doesn’t have the braking capacities… it’s basically at its ceiling in TCR racing, or anything with lesser brake force.’
Wickens embarked on an inspiring road to recovery after his massive accident into the catch fence at Pocono, which occurred during his debut IndyCar season driving for Sam Schmidt’s team.
The road to his return to real-world racing began in 2020 when the coronavirus epidemic forced motorsport to put on hold and let esports take the spotlight. Simcraft, a company that specializes in esports, equipped Wickens’ with an adaptable sim system which allowed him to race alongside IndyCar drivers online using hand-controls.
Wickens, who had improved his driving hand-control skills and physical endurance behind the wheels, signed a contract with Bryan Herta Autosport in 2022 to race a Hyundai touring car.
The time he spent in the simulator rig helped him understand the challenges faced by adaptive racers. He became ‘pen pals’ with some of them, taking note of their innovative ways to reroute the usual pedal inputs for hand-based application. Wickens was also doing this: he flipped his brake lever (derived from a rallycross car’s handbrake) around 180deg and relocated the load cell to get a stiffer feeling. In his words, this stopped the car from feeling ‘like a noodle’ under braking.
‘It was just to get some kind of sensation,’ Wickens adds. ‘Down the road, I would love to partner with various people in the sim world. Adaptive gaming is a very real thing.’
The cost of adaptive technologies is the most significant barrier to gaming for two-thirds (67%) of gamers with impairments. This will be one of the key challenges for Wickens to overcome as he aims to increase motorsport’s accessibility for adaptive drivers.
‘I think it does start at the esports world,’ says Wickens. ‘But I’m only two years into this journey, so we’re doing what we can to work on the real-world side of things, with different engineering companies.
‘I’m trying to figure out what is best for reality before we then go virtual, if that makes sense. It would be a pity to have a model that was not identical to real life.
‘[I would like there to be] a sim rig that’s more accessible. Maybe have a grab bar that’s easy to transfer in and out of. Right now, it’s a handful to get in and out. It’s not like I can’t just jump in on a whim.
‘I would love to make an impact, not only in reality but in the virtual world too. By raising awareness. There are a lot of us out there, and I’m lucky to have that platform to help it grow.’
Racecar Engineering, February 2024, has a great article on adaptive racing technology. Now available!
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