17 May 2014
Sam Schmidt's ready to drive again at Indy
PressSnoop's Lynne Huntting reports on an emotional comeback to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway race track for team owner Sam Schmidt.
This week, Sam Schmidt has been mostly preoccupied with his regular role as the team owner of Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports, which this year is fielding three cars in the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500.
Regular drivers Simon Pagenaud in the #77 and rookie Mikhail Aleshin in #7 are being joined for the event by 1995 Indy 500 winner Jacques Villeneuve in the #5 car. For most men, just keeping on top of the three-pronged assault on one of the world's most famous motor races would be enough to him fully occupied for the Month of May - but not Sam Schmidt.
Before he was a team owner, Schmidt was himself an IndyCar driver. He competed in a partial 1996-97 season with Blueprint Racing and LP Racing, before a full year of competition with LP in 1998. His most successful year in the sport as a driver was in 1999 with Treadway Racing which saw him claim his maiden race win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and come fifth in the championship overall.
But his racing career was cut short when he crashed in January 2000 at Walt Disney World Speedway while testing in preparation for the upcoming season. The accident left him on a respirator for five weeks and rendered him a quadriplegic, ending his racing career.
Schmidt took inspiration from the story of F1 team owner Sir Frank Williams and set himself on a similar path, founding Sam Schmidt Motorsports which went on to become the most successful team in the history of the Indy Lights series, and in 2011 the team made the jump to the Verizon IndyCar Series. The team's first pole success was putting Alex Tagliani at the front for that year's Indy 500.
For all his success as a team manager, Schmidt would never again be behind the wheel of a race car. Or at least, that's what he believed until this year, because this weekend he's about to return to the track for the first time since his accident.
On Sunday - Pole Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway - Schmidt will 'qualify' a 2014 black Corvette Stingray C7, a tricked-out semi-autonomous motorcar (SAM). At 9:30 am he will be in the chute and run four laps. His goal is to average 100 mph, and get to be "one of the guys" once more.
The SAM Project came about approximately seven months ago. Schmidt was already involved with Falci Adaptive Motorsports, which builds handicapped-accessible vehicles, and now he was contacted by Arrow Electronics who had a proposition for the 49-year-old from Lincoln, Nebraska.
The SAM project is the result: a collaboration between Arrow, Adaptive Motorsports, the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson, Ball Aerospace & Technologies Group and of course Schmidt's IndyCar own team. Using mostly off-the shelf technologies, the goal was simple: to have a car Schmidt can control despite his quadriplegia.
Schmidt's Corvette is tricked out with infrared technology like that normally only seen in the movies. Schmidt will wear a special baseball cap outfitted with eight small silver-reflective spheres, which will interact with four infrared cameras on the dashboard, reflecting light from Schmidt's head movements which control the car. By tilting his head he can steer, speed up, and when he bites a mouth sensor, the car will slow or stop. The car is equipped with a GPS system to keep it away from the edges of the track.
The car was first tested at The Brickyard, where Schmidt reached 78 mph, and then tested on the 7,500 foot runway at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where he got up to 84 mph. Now he's going for 100 mph in qualifying trim.
Later this year, Schmidt plans to run at the Bonneville Salt Flats, attempting to become the fastest quadriplegic in the world.
It's still more proof - if any were needed - that you can never keep a true racing driver down for long.
By Lynne Huntting, PressSnoop.com
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