More than two decades after scoring his lone INDYCAR SERIES win and shortly thereafter being paralyzed after a practice crash at Walt Disney World Speedway, Sam Schmidt is doing something he never thought he’d do again: competing in a race car.
Schmidt, co-owner of NTT INDYCAR SERIES team Arrow McLaren SP, competed in the Optima Ultimate Street Car Series on March 20-21 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the site of his 1999 series win and his home racetrack. Schmidt drove a modified Chevrolet Corvette C8, called the Arrow SAM Car, against able-bodied racers driving with conventional controls. The Arrow SAM Car uses sophisticated technology to let Schmidt drive by using only the motion of his head.
“This has been life-changing,” said Schmidt, 56. “Twenty-one years ago, there’s no way I ever thought I’d drive again or even come close to competing. I can’t say enough about the equipment by Arrow for making this happen. It’s really a full-circle situation with being here at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where we won the race here 21 years ago and finally, truly competing head-to-head on a racetrack. It’s pretty cool stuff that I get to show up with my helmet, I get in the car and I drive.”
This isn’t just a demonstration run. Schmidt is competing in the series’ three disciplines: autocross, speed stop and on the road course. In the autocross category, Schmidt put a time of 59 seconds on the board Saturday. In speed stop, he was ranked 20th of 66 cars by midday Sunday, and on the road course he put a time of 1 minute, 55 seconds on the board, which put him fourth out of 15 cars in his class.
Schmidt noted how his perspective has changed as Arrow’s technology has progressively become more sophisticated. Leading up to moments like this, the goal was simply to get back into a race car. Then, the goal was to compete. Now that he’s competing, like any race car driver, he wants more.
“Now, unfortunately, we’re competing, and I want to win,” he said. “The Arrow technology has gotten to where we’re really maximizing the technology of a stock car. To go any faster, we’re probably going to have to bolt on some aftermarket parts, which is really fun.
“You wouldn’t be a driver if you’re not complaining about something, right?”
This weekend has been eight years in the making. Schmidt partnered with Arrow in 2013 with the goal of making his dream of driving a car again come true. To do so, Arrow engineers have worked through two different generations of the car that is controlled by semi-autonomous head controls.
To drive this car, Schmidt wears a racing hat and sunglasses fitted with eight infrared sensors, and inside the car are four infrared cameras mounted facing the driver. The cameras and sensors motion-track Schmidt’s subtle head movements in real time, which is how he drives.
To steer, Schmidt tilts his head and looks in the direction he wants the car to go. To accelerate, he puffs breaths into a mouthpiece, which then translates the pressure to the gas pedal and gives him full control of over acceleration. To brake, Schmidt “sips” on the mouthpiece, which translates the negative pressure into braking.
Not only has Schmidt driven a race car competitively, but the Nevada Department of Motor Vehciles has issued Schmidt the first driver’s license to a person with high-level quadriplegia, and it has designated the Arrow SAM Car as an experimental car that can be driven on public streets.
Schmidt said this is just the beginning for himself in a competitive setting, but also for Arrow, which hopes to show the automotive industry and the general population that the conventional way society looks at cars and who is able to drive them can change.
The pair also hopes to change the lives of millions of people who suffer from physical disabilities. Schmidt said he hopes this car and competing this weekend gives people with disabilities the motivation and the confidence that they can do anything.
“(Arrow) did it originally because their true belief in life is that technology is integral to help people, but if you give technology to people with disabilities, it not only helps people, it makes their lives easier,” he said. “It can be life-altering in a lot of cases. They’ve continued to show off their capabilities.”
As Arrow’s technology progresses, Schmidt isn’t just along for the ride. He’s steering the car at speed.