Quadriplegic Sam Schmidt gives a glimpse into future of mobility

Sam Schmidt controls his virtual race car with head movement and a mouthpiece. Courtesy of Tim Considine

For Sam Schmidt, the invitation to participate in iRacing.com's annual Pro Race of Champions was much more than the chance to be one of the boys again.

It was an opportunity to demonstrate a world of new possibilities for people like himself and others.

Schmidt, an IndyCar Series race winner whose promising career was cut short when he suffered life-threatening injuries in a test crash at Walt Disney World Speedway in 2000, has worked for the past 18 months with Arrow Electronics to develop technology that enables paraplegics -- and in Schmidt's case, quadriplegics -- to operate a motor vehicle.

He demonstrated the rapidly evolving system several times over the past couple of years in a specially modified Chevrolet Corvette, first on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, then advancing to the more complex environment of the Long Beach street course and the hilly terrain of Sonoma Raceway.

The driver uses a mouthpiece and a headpiece with infrared cameras that combine to translate limited physical actions into systems that control the acceleration, braking and steering functions of the car.

Schmidt has logged plenty of development miles in Arrow's Corvette development car, moonlighting from his day job as the owner of the Sam Schmidt Motorsports team that competes in the Verizon IndyCar Series. But the Dec. 16 iRacing competition was the first time he has actually participated in a race since before his accident almost 16 years ago.

His participation was made possible by CXC Simulations, which collaborated with Arrow to translate the real-world controls into a virtual environment where Schmidt could compete against 24 other drivers in GT3-class BMW Z4 race cars at the Watkins Glen International short course.

This is the fifth year the popular iRacing online service has staged an all-star race. Aston Martin sports car racer Richie Stanaway was this year's victor, leading all 20 laps from pole position to win by 4.8 seconds over NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Timmy Hill, the defending champion.

Schmidt didn't feature, after getting swept into a first corner accident. But he rebounded from the delay to advance from 23rd place to 16th and rekindled some old memories in the process.

"I think I anticipated the anxiety of the excitement throughout the whole deal, but what I didn't anticipate was how quickly it came back and how it was really very natural," Schmidt said. "Even though it was a simulated experience, it was very real and just really cool. It was like setting a reset button to flash back 15 years -- here we are on the grid, and we're going racing!

"It's a completely different perspective being a team owner versus driving and after all those things I've been hammering my drivers over for the last 10 or 15 years, I got put back into a driver's viewpoint," he added. "That was kind of interesting, and I can't wait to do it again because I learned so much that I can apply the next time and be better at it."

As much as Schmidt enjoyed the experience of again being an active participant in a race, he said the real point of the exercise was to promote the work that is going into making dreams of mobility come true for paraplegics and other disabled people.

He conceded that as recently as two years ago, he never considered the possibility that he would be able to drive a car around a racetrack or pilot a virtual vehicle in the same kind of simulator that four other pros used as they ran the Race of Champions from CXC's Los Angeles headquarters.

"I really didn't think driving was an option for 15 years since the accident," Schmidt acknowledged. "I just sort of wrote it off. I thought, 'Well, since we're not going to be able to do that, let's focus on the things we can do.'

"But they came up with the idea and the concept," he continued. "It seemed rather outlandish; it was a little crazy and sort of out there, but from the time it was brought up to the time we drove it was about five months.

"Like anything in technology, it's really evolved substantially in the 18 months we've been working on it. But that's what this race was all about -- to show that normal everyday technology can really change people's lives."

Anyone who follows racing knows that Schmidt's story is inspirational. With modern race car chassis and gearbox technology, SAFER barriers and the HANS device, a driver today would likely walk away from the wreck that left him a quadriplegic.

Sam used his father as his inspiration. He was paralyzed in a racing accident in the 1970s -- what are the odds of two members of the same family suffering such similar injuries under such similar circumstances? -- but it didn't set him back much.

"He didn't let it slow him down at all, and 40 years ago, they didn't have all the technology that they have nowadays," Schmidt said of his father. "He adapted. He adapted his car; he adapted his lifestyle to be able to continue working and support the family and grow his business.

"When I got hurt, it was kind of like 'plug it in,'" he continued. "We had to go on. We had to do whatever was possible to continue on with life. If it has inspired other people, that's great. That's not a driving force, but you kind of see it after the fact that you can help people get back into life."

Schmidt visits hundreds of disabled patients every year at VA and civilian hospitals and rehabilitation centers, and he believes that the competitive spirit he had as a race car driver motivated him to make the best of the situation he was placed in.

Not everyone has that kind of drive, especially when confronted with the reality of living life without the use of their arms or legs.

"I think it's sort of inbred in athletes and people who have been very, very active before they were disabled," Schmidt said. "They don't want to take no for an answer; they don't want to write it off and say, 'That's the end of that.' They do everything humanly possible to get back into life and be productive and try to change situations for themselves and others.

"I've always been of the nature that you can do whatever you put your mind to," he added. "But this is really cool to find a private corporation with the desire to get something done."

Schmidt's cars have won five IndyCar Series races and seven Indy Lights championships, but he is looking forward to putting the 2015 season in the rear view mirror. Although James Hinchcliffe won a race in his debut season for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, he was seriously injured in a testing crash at Indianapolis and missed most of the campaign.

Fully recovered, Hinchcliffe is back, partnered with Russian Mikhail Aleshin, who showed a lot of promise as a rookie in 2014.

"Last year was one of those years you just kind of want to push over to the side and move on," Schmidt said. "Everybody is just really pumped up and there's a great energy amongst the team. James has bounced back really well, and he's got a great fire to win races this year, and it's the first time we've had a repeating driver in the second car. Mikhail is really going to push James, so I think it's a perfect two-car team, and we've beefed up the engineering effort over the winter.

"I'm about as excited for a season as I've ever been because we've made a plan and gotten it done early and it's all a very good situation."