It navigates tight turns with ease, slipping even when the sky opens up to make tarmac smooth and slippery. Step into the car, however, and it’s immediately apparent just how remarkable this track session is.
Schmidt is quadriplegic and completely paralyzed below the neck, making it impossible to use a steering wheel and pedals.
Instead, McLaren has teamed up with American electronics company Arrow to produce the Semi-Autonomous Mobility Car (SAM), which allows the former IndyCar driver to accelerate and brake by huffing and by sucking on a tube – called the “sip and puff” function – – and directing by turning your head.
After his life-changing injury in 2000, the thrill of racing was something Schmidt never thought he would experience again.
“I have the gas and the brake and the head movements and so there’s nothing more in my life that makes me feel as normal – and that’s pretty spectacular.”
“Roller Coaster of Emotions”
Schmidt says he’s “lucky” he doesn’t remember the accident that turned his world upside down.
During a practice session in Florida before the 2000 Indy Racing League season, he lost control of the car during what should have been a routine practice lap and crashed into a concrete barrier at about 180 miles per hour.
Schmidt and his team had entered this season with high hopes – so high, in fact, that he had real aspirations of winning the title – but the following year would turn out to be very different from the one he had envisioned earlier in the season. ‘afternoon.
Schmidt spent six months undergoing a grueling rehabilitation program in hospital, often for more than five hours a day, before being discharged to start his new life at home.
“A lot of people say, ‘How did you get over that?’ But the reality is that sometimes it affects family members more than me because of their lives and their expectations,” Schmidt said. “I mean, it wasn’t my family’s goal in life to beat the Indy 500. It was my dream, and because of my dream, I kind of messed up their plans.
“It’s such a rollercoaster of emotions. All this positivity and the thought that we’re looking forward to the 2000 season, I have a six-month-old, a two-and-a-half-year-old and it’s really just a picture perfection here.
“We did everything, my beautiful wife and I had just won my first race in IndyCar. Just all kinds of positive things happening and then everything is upside down.”
The doctor’s initial prognosis was grim; at first they said Schmidt only had a few weeks to live. Then they said he would probably be on a ventilator for the rest of his life.
At the time, the idea that Schmidt would one day drive a race car again would certainly have seemed impossible.
Early in his recovery, Schmidt was inspired by his father’s recovery from paralysis to continue defying the odds, while imagining his children growing up.
“He had intensive rehabilitation for two years to regain the ability to walk and talk,” Schmidt says of his father, who was paralyzed when Schmidt was 11. “So that’s always been one of my motivators: he did it, so why can’t I do it?
“But I also had two children who were six months old and two and a half when I was injured, so I wanted to be there to watch them grow into adults, and it all happened in an incredible, incredible way. .”
Once Schmidt and his family adjusted to their new lifestyle, their thoughts turned to what he could do next.
Alongside his wife, Sheila, Schmidt founded the Sam Schmidt Motorsports racing team which competed in Indy Lights, the series under IndyCar. As a team owner, Schmidt enjoyed great success, winning 75 races and seven championships, before moving to IndyCar in 2011.
Sam Schmidt Motorsports can boast pole positions, race wins and a second-place finish at the Indy 500 – but a win at the prestigious Indy 500 still eludes them, something Schmidt is determined to change as he waits. looking forward to his team’s new partnership with McLaren.
“At one point, it’s like, ‘What are you doing with the rest of your life?’ Before that, I was on the road 152 days a year. My wife tells me, ‘You have to find something to do because you’re driving me crazy,'” laughs Schmidt.
“So a year after the accident, we decided to start a racing team – completely naively, we didn’t know [that we’d] get involved – but it was just a matter of, it takes two hours to get up in the morning, so what excites me to make it all worth it?”
‘What is your dream?’
Even as he lay in the hospital and struggled to come to terms with his condition, there was still something that made Schmidt realize how lucky he was.
“Being in a spinal cord injury hospital…most of the patients there didn’t have good insurance, didn’t have family supporting them, didn’t have all these people rallying around like me,” Schmidt recalls. “That’s why our group decided to create this foundation.”
While Schmidt says his Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, which was established in the months following his accident, aims to find a cure for paralysis, his main goal is to help the millions of people like him around the world to find their sense of “purpose”. in life.”
“How can we improve their lives? How can we show them that by dint of perseverance, I was able to continue to achieve the dream of my life? Schmidt said. “So we challenged them: ‘What is your dream and how can you achieve it?’
“How can we make sure you can achieve this? What is your passion ? Let’s see if we can find a way to get you there – and that’s really what the foundation does day in and day out. »
Schmidt quickly realized that his dream was to one day be back behind the wheel of a race car, a seemingly impossible ambition that was made a reality by a team of engineers from Arrow; in 2014, Schmidt drove a specially modified Corvette Stingray, the first version of the SAM car, to 100 miles per hour at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Over the years, a number of Corvettes were modified with various versions of the technology until Schmidt got so used to the system that he started racing competitively again, even completing the Pikes Peak challenge in Colorado. , a daunting 12.42 mile climb with 156 turns. and 14,110 feet in elevation.
Schmidt completed the course in 15 minutes, just six minutes behind the winner who drove with conventional driving controls. It was a remarkable feat of engineering and one that took a relatively short period of time to accomplish.
“Since we got the [first] car, we developed everything in three to five months, from no modifications to high-speed driving with all of our systems running,” Arrow mechanical engineer Grace Doepker told CNN Sport.
“When developing for Sam, it was probably a little different from another disabled person or one of our engineers, which we thought was optimal. Sam is a racing driver, just from a point of view a little different and he wants another level of performance.
“So that really pushed our engineering abilities to sort of match what he was able to do as a race driver and then, because of his disability, we had to make sure he was comfortable and had the best driving experience possible.
“It was definitely a labor of love – lots of long nights in the lab and in the garage putting it all together and sometimes we forget why we’re doing this. Then once we put Sam in the car, it’s really nice to see: ‘Okay, that’s what it’s about — that’s what it’s for.'”
But Arrow’s work with Schmidt was not limited to the track. Last year, he was able to walk his daughter down the aisle and dance with her at her wedding thanks to an exoskeleton costume, a moment that still makes Schmidt emotional when he talks about it.
Schmidt still sounds somewhat incredulous when talking about the technology that has helped him achieve things he wouldn’t have thought possible just a few years ago.
“It’s phenomenal,” he says. “It’s really hard to describe because for 15 years I never thought I would drive again and then now drive not only on the street but on a circuit [like Goodwood] it’s so iconic, it’s a bucket list item. It’s a dream come true.”