By Matias Grez, CNN Video by Amy Li, CNN
As racing driver Sam Schmidt tears around the historic Goodwood Racetrack in a McLaren 720S, reaching speeds in excess of 150 miles per hour, from the outside this looks like an ordinary practice session.
He navigates the tight corners with ease, gliding around even as the heavens open to make the tarmac slick and slippery. Step into the car, however, and it is immediately obvious just how remarkable this track session is.
Schmidt is quadriplegic and completely paralyzed below the neck, making the use of a steering wheel and pedals impossible.
Instead, McLaren 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 tube — called the “sip and puff” function — and to steer by turning his head.
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 do most of my daily tasks,” Schmidt tells CNN Sport at Goodwood, UK. “So when I first drove the car, it’s like: ‘I’m actually controlling 100% of these functions.’
“I have the gas and the brake and the head movements and so there’s nothing more in my life that makes me feel that normal — and that’s pretty spectacular.”
‘Roller coaster of emotions’
Schmidt says he is “fortunate” to not remember much of 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 what should have been a routine practice lap and smashed into a concrete barrier at around 180 miles per hour.
Schmidt and his team had gone into that season with high hopes — so high, in fact, that he had real aspirations of winning the title — but the following year would become very different to the one he had envisioned earlier that afternoon.
Schmidt spent six months undergoing a grueling rehabilitation program in hospital, often for more than five hours a day, before being discharged to begin his new life at home.
“A lot of people say: ‘How did you overcome it?’ But the reality is, it affects the family members sometimes more than me because of their lives and their expectations,” Schmidt says. “I mean, it wasn’t my family’s goal in life to beat the Indy 500. That was my dream and, because of my dream, I sort of messed up their plans.
“It’s such a roller coaster of emotions. All this positiveness and thinking we’re looking forward to the 2000 season, I’ve got a six-month-old, a two-and-a-half-year-old and it’s really just a photo of perfection here.
“We’ve got everything going, my beautiful wife and I’d just won my first race in IndyCar. Just all kinds of positive stuff going on and then to have it all turned upside down.”
The doctor’s initial prognosis was bleak; in the beginning, they said Schmidt only had a matter of weeks to live. Then, they said he would likely be on a ventilator for the rest of his life.
At the time, the idea of Schmidt one day driving a racing car again would have certainly seemed impossible.
In the early stages of his recovery, Schmidt used his father’s own recovery from paralysis as inspiration to continue defying the odds, as well as picturing his children growing up.
“He had intensive rehabilitation for two years to get back 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 motivating factors: he did it, so I why can’t I do it?
“But I also had two kids that were six months and two-and-a-half when I was hurt, so I wanted to be around to see them grow up and become adults, and that’s all happened in unbelievable, unbelievable fashion.”
Once Schmidt and his family had adapted to their new way of life, their thoughts turned to what he could dedicate himself to next.
Alongside his wife, Sheila, Schmidt founded the racing team Sam Schmidt Motorsports which competed in Indy Lights, the series below IndyCar. As a team owner, Schmidt enjoyed great success, winning 75 races and seven championships, before moving into 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 adamant to change as he looks forward to his team’s new partnership with McLaren.
“At some point it’s like: ‘What do you do with the rest of your life?’ Prior to that, I’d been on the road 152 days a year. My wife’s like, ‘You need to find something to do cause you’re driving me nuts,'” Schmidt laughs.
“So a year after the accident, we decided to start a race team — completely naively, we didn’t know [that we’d] get that involved — but it was just a matter of, it takes two hours to get up in the morning, so what do I have a passion for to make that all worthwhile?”
‘What’s your dream?’
Even while he was lying in hospital and struggling 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 a supportive family, didn’t have all these people rallying behind them like I did,” Schmidt recalls. “So that’s why our group decided to start this foundation.”
While Schmidt says his Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, which was set up in the months after his accident, aims to find a cure for paralysis, its 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 make their lives better? How can we show them that through just perseverance, I’ve been able to continue on following my life’s dream?” Schmidt says. “So we challenged them: ‘What’s your dream and how can you make?’
“How can we make it so you can achieve 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 day in and day out.”
Schmidt quickly realized his dream was to one day be back in the driving seat of a racing car, a seemingly impossible ambition 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, at 100 miles per hour at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Over the years, a number of Corvettes were modified with various versions of the technology until Schmidt became so accustomed to the system that he began racing competitively again, even taking on the Pikes Peak challenge in Colorado, a daunting 12.42-mile climb with 156 turns and 14,110 feet of elevation.
Schmidt finished 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.
“From the time we got the [first] car, we had the whole thing developed in three to five months, from no modifications to driving at speed with all of our systems running,” Arrow mechanical engineer Grace Doepker tells CNN Sport.
“When developing for Sam, it was probably a little bit different than another disabled person or one of our engineers, what we thought would be optimal. Sam is a racing driver, comes from a little bit of a different perspective and he wants a different level of performance.
“So it really pushed our engineering capabilities to sort of match what he was able to do as a racing driver and then, because of his disabilities, we had to make sure he was comfortable and he had the best driving experience possible.
“It was definitely a labor of love — a lot of long nights in the lab and at the garage putting everything together and sometimes we forget why we’re doing this. Then once we get Sam in the car, it’s really nice to see: ‘Okay, this is what it’s all about — this is 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 suit, a moment that still makes Schmidt emotional when he talks about it.
Schmidt still sounds somewhat incredulous when speaking about the technology that has helped him achieve things he wouldn’t have thought were 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’d drive again and then now to get to drive not only on the street, but on a racetrack [like Goodwood] that is so iconic, it’s a bucket list item. It’s a dream come true.”
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