INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana – Sam Schmidt didn’t win his race today against Mario Andretti, but he did accomplish something else.
He felt normal again.
Schmidt, paralyzed from the neck down in a crash during an Indy car test session in 2000, dueled with Andretti in specially modified Chevrolet Corvettes around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
The result? Schmidt felt like a racer again. He felt like himself.
“It feels normal,” Schmidt said. “The first time in 17 years I’ve felt normal. There are so many things I haven’t been able to teach my kids to do – to throw a football, to drive a stick shift. To be able to come back and do this kind of stuff makes up for it a little bit.”
Schmidt, the co-owner of Verizon IndyCar Series team Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, has been instrumental in the development and advancement of semi-autonomous motorcar (SAM) technology. Along with Arrow Electronics, the team’s primary sponsor for James Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Honda that competes today in the INDYCAR Grand Prix, he’s tested various forms of the cars, which use head movements and inhalation and exhalation to steer, propel and brake.
“I feel really comfortable using this technology for a lot of applications to get people back to work,” Schmidt said. “Our big push now is to get this into tractor-trailer rigs, so people with disabilities can drive over-the-road tractors. I think that’s just around the corner.”
Schmidt uses a breathing tube to accelerate and brake, and a special camera mounted to his helmet to steer. He’s previously tested it on the IMS oval, the Long Beach street course, the Sonoma road course and the course used for the annual Pikes Peak Hill Climb.
But this was the first time he’d raced the car against someone in like equipment.
“It was great,” Schmidt said. “It was weird. (After) 17 years, driving down the straightaway 130 miles an hour side-by-side was fantastic, and doing it with Mario Andretti was great.”
Andretti, whose 52 Indy wins rank second all time, agreed.
"Now I can sleep tonight," Andretti said. "I tell you, this one really had me going. I had to shut off all my natural senses because, obviously, you just need all the practice you can get. And they gave me every opportunity, but still, I really wasn’t too sure. I didn’t know how much I could trust myself. I’m just thankful the cars are coming in with all the fenders on.”
As the cars came to a side-by-side stop afterward, Schmidt was greeted by Hinchcliffe. “Hey, Mario,” Hinchcliffe shouted over the roof of Schmidt’s car. “Sam wants a rematch.”
“The plan was to try and pass him on the front straightaway at the stripe, and we picked up a bunch of marbles in Turn 14 and the car went straight,” Schmidt explained. “We had to lift off the gas and get back into it. … That was the plan. He’s a pretty smart old codger, too, so that might have been (his) plan.”
Schmidt may not have won the race but he still felt like a winner. He even performed a celebratory tire burnout at the end of the front straight.