- Sam Schmidt became a quadriplegic after an IndyCar accident in 2000.
- But now he is fighting again and last year he was able to dance with his daughter at her wedding.
- “It blows my mind,” the 57-year-old told Insider.
As a child, Sam Schmidt dreamed of racing in the Indianapolis 500.
In 1997, that dream became a reality as Schmidt made his debut in the Indy Racing League. He would spend three years in the championship and won his first race in Las Vegas in 1999.
“Life was perfect,” she told Insider.
A few months later, in January 2000, however, Schmidt’s life turned upside down.
“I was testing in Florida for the upcoming season and I hit the wall at 200 mph,” Schmidt said. “I popped my vertebrae.”
Schmidt was paralyzed from the neck down in the crash, and doctors told his wife, Sheila, that he would only live another three to five years — all of which would be spent on a ventilator in a nursing home.
Fast forward 22 years and Schmidt is driving again
After his crash, Schmidt spent five months in the hospital. Shortly after his retirement, however, he formed his own IndyCar team: Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
The team, now known as Arrow McLaren SP, debuted in the Indy Racing League in 2001 and has since won nine races. The team has also competed in Indy Lights since 2002, where it has enjoyed unparalleled success, winning seven championships.
Not content to watch from the sidelines, however, Schmidt was always determined to get back behind the wheel.
With the help of Arrow Electronics, in 2014, he did.
The American company has developed what it calls the Semi-Autonomous Mobility Car — or, appropriately, the SAM Car — and the vehicle is controlled like no other in the world.
To steer, Schmidt wears a helmet equipped with motion-tracking sensors, which connect to dashboard-mounted cameras that then move the car’s wheels based on his head movements. To accelerate and brake, Schmidt exhales or inhales into a tube. To signal, it uses a voice command system.
He always has a co-pilot in the car with him who can take over the controls using a conventional steering wheel, but only if necessary.
“Everything in my life is pretty much done by someone else,” Schmidt said. “But at SAM Car, I have total control.
“Before my injury, it was the most normal thing in the world. I didn’t have it for 15 years, but now I have it again, it’s exciting. It’s so much fun.”
Schmidt drove the SAM Car — originally a modified 2014 Corvette Stingray — for the first time in 2014 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In 2016, he then took part in the Pikes Peak Challenge – a 4,720-foot, 156-turn hill climb in Colorado that has been called the “greatest challenge in motorsports for both man and machine.” Schmidt finished only six minutes behind the regular car winner.
SAM Car has evolved a lot since then. Now a modified McLaren 720S Spider, the car can reach speeds of up to 212 mph. The infrared cameras now respond to more subtle head movements, and there are also much improved transitions between acceleration and braking.
Schmidt, now 57, drove the latest version of the vehicle for the first time earlier this year and in June, completed the iconic climb at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in West Sussex, England.
“They continued for eight years to update the car,” Schmidt said. “When I go into it now, the reaction time is zero. “When you move, it moves. It blows my mind.
“Everything I’ve challenged Arrow with, from a driver’s perspective, whether it’s softening the rigs, changing the steering curve, they’ve found a way to write the software to do it.
“It’s really amazing.”
The SAM Car has changed Schmidt’s life, and he hopes it can for others too
In addition to helping him get back into racing, Arrow also helped Schmidt in his life away from the track.
He was able to drive his children through the streets of New York and Washington, D.C., and drove his wife across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
In 2021, using an Arrow-designed exoskeleton that allows him to walk, Schmidt was also able to dance with his daughter, Savannah, at her wedding.
He called it “the best moment of his life.”
“I can’t teach my son how to throw a football. I can’t teach him how to drive shift. All these things that I wanted to do as a parent were taken away, that was probably the hardest thing for me,” said Schmidt.
“But Arrow gave us opportunities to do a lot of things we never thought possible.”
As for the future, Schmidt wants to continue working with Arrow to improve the SAM Car and the company’s other technologies — both for himself and others like him.
“For purely selfish reasons, I want to keep driving and go fast,” he said. “But what we’re seeing now, the applications can be as simple as getting people back to work.
“A lot of times, people with disabilities like mine just want to get back to work [food] tables for their family and be a productive member of society.
“They were told throughout the process, you know, your life as you know it is pretty much over,” he continued. “We want to try to unpack that and say, ‘What is your goal in life?’ and then try to use physical training and technology to achieve that goal.”