Joyrides don’t get much better.
Sam Schmidt unveiled a Nevada vanity license plate, RCR4LIF, which summarized his thoughts about the SAM (Semi-Autonomous Motorcar) Project and -- in more general terms – his life’s goal before the driver’s side door of the black Chevrolet Corvette Stingray closed.
Schmidt, who is a quadriplegic as the result of a race car testing accident in 2000, drove the modified car for a few slow – compared to Verizon IndyCar Series cars – but thoroughly enjoyable laps on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before Pole Day qualifications.
The project, a collaboration between Arrow Electronics and Ball Aerospace, was broached last late year and Schmidt “didn’t need two seconds to think about it before saying yes.”
“Then,” he added, “I thought, ‘How are we going to do it?’ ’’
The details already had been set in motion by the tech companies, in cooperation with the neuroscience branch of the Air Force Research Laboratory and Falci Adaptive Motorsports. The car is fitted with advanced electronics and a human-to-machine interface to allow people with disabilities similar to Schmidt’s to drive solo.
No hands or feet are required to drive it. Four sensors on the headwear transmit information to infrared cameras on the dashboard. Head tilting dictates steering and acceleration in 10 mph increments. A bite sensor slows the car. GPS technology prevents movement within 1.5 meters from virtual curbing and within a 10-meter steering width.
“I think this will have huge benefits for people with disabilities down the road,” said Schmidt, co-owner of a Verizon IndyCar Series team that will have three cars start in the 98th Indy 500 on May 25. “This is a full-circle moment today. A lot of the emotions stem from being at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It got to qualify for the race three times.
“The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was constructed originally as a place to drive automotive innovation, and the multitude of innovations that have been discovered here over 102 years means a lot."
Schmidt is the founder and driving force of the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, which seeks to aid in discovering a cure for paralysis by funding scientific research, medical treatment, rehabilitation and technological advances. It also provides quality of life grants to organizations throughout the country benefiting people with paralysis and other life challenges. This week, the annual Racing For Recovery Gala will honor three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti with its Legendary Driver Award.
The innovation and technology incorporated into the SAM Project lifts Schmidt's hopes of walking again.
“The thing that was so emotional and enlightening was the great sense of accomplishment that comes from doing something that feels normal," he said. "I do a lot of the things I did before, but I do it all with assistance. I’m not in control of the situation. But in this car I feel the most normal I’ve felt in 14 years.”
The ABC-TV broadcast team of Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, in Indianapolis for the NBA Eastern Conference Finals series between the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat, received rides in an Indy Racing Experience two-seater with Mario Andretti at the wheel. "It was absolutely unbelievable. It was a thrill of a lifetime," said Jackson, a former Pacers guard. Both then watched the practice session preceding qualifications, during which Mikhail Aleshin set the fastest lap of the month at 232.917 mph. ... Franchitti was a guest analyst on the ABC telecast of qualifications May 18.