Sam Schmidt: How a remarkable technique allowed a paraplegic former IndyCar driver to start racing again


When racer Sam Schmidt hurtles around the historic Goodwood Racetrack in a McLaren 720S, reaching speeds in excess of 150 miles per hour, from the outside it looks like an ordinary workout.

It navigates the tight corners with ease and glides around even when the skies open up to make the tarmac smooth and slippery. However, once you get in the car, it’s immediately clear just how remarkable this track session is.

Schmidt is paraplegic from the waist down and completely paralyzed below the neck, making it impossible to use the steering wheel and pedal boats.

Instead, McLaren has teamed up with American electronics company Arrow to produce the Semi-Autonomous Mobility (SAM) Car, which allows the former IndyCar driver to accelerate and brake by blowing and sucking on a hose – the so-called ” Sip and Puff” feature – and turn your head to steer.

After his life-changing injury in 2000, the thrill of racing was something Schmidt never thought he would experience again.

“For 22 years, I really had to rely on other people to get most of my day-to-day tasks done,” Schmidt told CNN Sport in Goodwood, UK. “So when I first drove the car, it was like, ‘I actually control 100% of these functions.’

“I’ve got the gas and the brake and the head movements and so there’s nothing in my life that makes me feel quite normal anymore – and that’s quite spectacular.”

Sam Schmidt blows into a pipe to accelerate and sucks to brake.

Schmidt says he’s “lucky” not to remember much about the crash that turned his world upside down.

During a testing session in Florida ahead of the 2000 Indy Racing League season, he lost control of the car during a routine practice lap and crashed into a concrete barrier at about 180 mph.

Schmidt and his team had entered this season with high hopes – so high that he had real ambitions to win the title – but the following year would be very different from what he had envisioned early this afternoon.

Schmidt spent six months in the hospital on a grueling rehabilitation program, often spending more than five hours a day, before being released to start his new life at home.

“A lot of people say, ‘How did you get over it?’ But the reality is that sometimes it affects family members more than it does me because of their lives and their expectations,” says Schmidt. “I mean, beating the Indy 500 wasn’t my family’s goal in life. That was my dream, and because of my dream, I kind of messed up their plans.

“It’s such a roller coaster 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 really is just a photo of perfection here.

“We have everything going, my beautiful wife and I had just won my first race at IndyCar. All sorts of positive things just happen and then everything turns upside down.”

Schmidt's daughter visits him in the hospital after his accident.

The doctor’s initial prognosis was bleak; At first it was said that Schmidt only had a few weeks to live. Then they said he would probably be on a ventilator for the rest of his life.

The idea that Schmidt would one day drive a racing car again would certainly have seemed impossible at the time.

In the early stages of his recovery, Schmidt used his father’s own recovery from paralysis as inspiration to continue defying the odds and envisioning his children growing up.

“He underwent intensive rehabilitation for two years to be able to walk and talk again,” says Schmidt of his father, who became paralyzed when he was eleven. “So that’s always been one of my motivating factors: He made it, so I why can’t I?

“But I also had two kids who were six months and two and a half years old when I got hurt, so I wanted to be there to see them grow up and grow up, and it all happened in an incredible, incredible way. ”

After adjusting to the new way of life, Schmidt and his family considered what he could pursue next.

Together with his wife Sheila, Schmidt founded the racing team Sam Schmidt Motorsports, which competed in Indy Lights, the series below IndyCar. Schmidt was very successful as a team owner, winning 75 races and seven championships before joining IndyCar in 2011.

Sam Schmidt Motorsports has boasted pole positions, race wins and a second place finish at the Indy 500 – but they are still elusive at the prestigious Indy 500, which Schmidt is keen to change as he anticipates his team’s new partnership with McLaren is happy .

Schmidt drove his McLaren at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

“Sometimes it’s like, ‘What are you going to do with the rest of your life?’ Before that I was on the road 152 days a year. My wife says, ‘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 naive, we didn’t know [that we’d] you have to commit to it – but it was just a question, it takes you two hours to get up in the morning, so what am I passionate about to make it all worthwhile?”

Even as he lay in the hospital struggling with his condition, there was something that made Schmidt realize his good fortune.

“Being in a hospital with spinal cord injuries … most of the patients there didn’t have good insurance, didn’t have family support, didn’t have all these people behind them like I did,” Schmidt recalls. “That’s why our group decided to start this foundation.”

While Schmidt says his Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, established in the months following his accident, aims to find a cure for paralysis, its primary goal is to help millions of people like him around the world find their purpose to find “meaning” in life.”

“How can we improve their lives? How can we show them that it was only through perseverance that I was able to pursue my lifelong dream?” says Schmidt. “So we challenged them, ‘What is your dream and how can you achieve it?’

“How can we make it so you can make it? what is your passion Let’s see if we can figure out how to get you there – and that’s really what the foundation does every day.”

Schmidt quickly realized that his dream was to one day be back in the driver’s seat of a racing car, a seemingly impossible goal that was made a reality by a team of engineers at Arrow. In 2014, Schmidt drove a specially modified Corvette Stingray, the first version of the SAM Car, to 100 miles per hour at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Arrow built an exoskeleton that allowed Schmidt to stand upright.

Over the years, a number of Corvettes were modified with different versions of the technology until Schmidt became so used to the system that he started competing again, even taking on the Pikes Peak challenge in Colorado, a daunting 12.42 miles -Climb with 156 turns and 14,110 feet elevation.

Schmidt finished the course in 15 minutes, just six minutes behind the winner, who was using conventional driver controls. It was a remarkable engineering feat to be completed in a relatively short time.

“Ever since we got them [first] Auto, we developed the whole thing in three to five months, from no modifications to driving at high speed with all our systems running,” Grace Doepker, Arrow’s mechanical engineer, told CNN Sport.

“When designing for Sam, it was probably a little bit different than another disabled person or one of our engineers, which we thought was optimal. Sam is a racer, comes from a slightly different perspective and wants a different level of performance.

“So it really pushed our technical ability to achieve what he was able to do as a racer and then because of his disabilities we had to make sure he was comfortable and he had the best possible driving experience.

“It was definitely a labor of love – lots of late nights in the lab and workshop putting everything together and sometimes we forget why we’re doing it. And then when we put Sam in the car, it’s really nice to see, ‘Okay, that’s the point – that’s the point.'”

But Arrow’s work with Schmidt wasn’t limited to the racetrack. Last year, thanks to an exoskeleton suit, he was able to walk his daughter down the aisle and dance with her at her wedding, a moment Schmidt still gets emotional when he talks about it.

Schmidt still sounds a bit incredulous when he talks 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 that I would ever drive again and now that I could not only drive on the road but also on a track [like Goodwood] this is so iconic it’s a bucket list item. It’s a dream come true.”