As ADA Anniversary Day is celebrated July 26 on the 31st anniversary of the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, NTT INDYCAR SERIES team owner Sam Schmidt continues to be motivated by the progress being made to cure paralysis.
Schmidt, 56, was paralyzed from the neck down in an INDYCAR testing accident in 2000 at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Florida. For 21 years he has defied the physical and emotional challenges of being a quadriplegic, and he has been relentless in pursuit of the cause.
Soon after Schmidt’s accident, the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation was created to fund scientific research, medical treatment, rehabilitation and technological advancements that seek to overcome paralysis. From that effort came Conquer Paralysis Now, a Schmidt-led non-profit that is a leading authority on spinal cord injuries, and the Driven NeuroRecovery Center in Las Vegas that works to improve the physical, mental and emotional health of individuals with disabilities.
“We see the results of the efforts every day at Driven,” said Schmidt, who lives 20 miles from the center and regularly uses its industry-leading equipment. “We want to multiply that because it changes lives.
“We’ve had people who had thoughts about committing suicide turn their lives around and become really product members of society. That’s kind of what drives me.”
Schmidt continues to be amazed by the progress in fighting paralysis, particularly by recent advancements in human clinical trials. Given that, Schmidt said it “gives him hope” that he could realize a personal benefit from the research.
“I’m going on (22) years, so I have a pretty good spectrum of experience,” he said. “The last five years have been really positive, and we’ve seen a lot of really good results from what we’ve learned.
“There are still things happening quickly that give me hope that there will be something for me to try in my lifetime.”
Schmidt used race car driver Robert Wickens as an example. While driving a Schmidt Peterson Motorsports car, Wickens suffered spinal cord injuries in a 2018 crash at Pocono Raceway and continues to see results from his training.
“Robert is an example of hard work, determination and all the elements of what can be done,” Schmidt said.
Parallel to the medical research is a technology program creating mobility opportunities for people with disabilities. Arrow Electronics, which partners with Schmidt, Ric Peterson and McLaren in the current Arrow McLaren SP INDYCAR program, is leading the way with several high-profile creations.
The SAM Car is a modified Corvette C7 Stingray that can be controlled by a quadriplegic using his head and mouth. Schmidt drove the for the first time in 2014, reaching 97 mph on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval where he had led four laps 15 years earlier in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. The next day he topped 107 mph.
Two years later, Schmidt and the next iteration of the SAM Car conquered one of racing’s most difficult challenges: Attacking the famed Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in Colorado. The “track” that uses the legal road to the summit of 14,110 feet is 12.42 miles in length with 156 turns, and Schmidt, with four-time Pikes Peak champion and three-time Indy 500 starter Robby Unser in the passenger’s seat, completed the run in 15 minutes, which was just under eight minutes behind that year’s overall winning time.
“I thought I never would feel this freedom again,” Schmidt said after the run. “I’ve learned that anything is possible.”
Two months ago, during a practice day for the 105th Indianapolis 500, Schmidt was fitted with the revolutionary Arrow SAM Suit. The exoskeleton technology, which has motors at the knees and hips while using another individual to provide stability, allowed Schmidt to “walk” through Gasoline Alley at a safe and steady pace. Almost no one involved with the Arrow McLaren SP team had ever seen Schmidt standing, which made it an emotional experience.
The device also allowed Schmidt to dance with his daughter, Savannah, who was 2 at the time of his accident, at her wedding. Schmidt then, for the first time in 21 years, stood next to his wife, Sheila, and danced with her. The video of that day in Southern California went viral on the Internet.
“Definitely the best day of my life in quite a few years,” he said.
The pursuit to conquer paralysis continues, with Schmidt leading the charge.
“There’s just a lot of people benefitting from the success of our efforts,” he said. “As I said, that’s what drives me.”
Arrow McLaren SP fields cars in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES for Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, and O’Ward is second in the series’ point standings heading to the inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville, Tennessee on Aug. 8. Information about and donations to Conquer Paralysis Now can be found and made at conquerparalysisnow.org.