Paralyzed former IndyCar driver returns to PIR with Corvette operated by head movements

AVONDALE – Race fans gathered in the infield between practice runs at Phoenix International Raceway Friday, cheering as a new Corvette took to the track.

Inside was Sam Schmidt, an IndyCar team owner and former driver who was paralyzed in an accident in 2000. Schmidt has raced and won numerous times at PIR and was back in front of Phoenix fans taking laps around the track.

“In 16 years, not having the use of any limbs, I haven’t really been able to control anything and I rely on other people for everything,” Schmidt said. “To be in the driver’s seat in 100 percent control, turning the car, gas, brake, doing little burnouts, I mean, it’s pretty special.”

The ride gave Schmidt the opportunity to demonstrate the SAM (Semi-Autonomous Motorcar) Car 2.0, a Corvette Stingray modified to be driven at regular speed using head movement. The car is a project of Schmidt’s and the engineers at Arrow Electronics. The work started in 2014.

Infrared cameras track the head position of the driver, which turns the steering wheel as the driver moves his or her head. To control the accelerator, the driver holds a tube in his or her mouth and sucks to accelerate and blows to apply the breaks.

It’s been 16 years since the accident at Walt Disney World Speedway in Buena Vista, Florida, that changed Schmidt’s life. ESPN reported after the crash that Schmidt’s car had spun and hit the retaining wall, leaving him unconscious and not breathing. After he was revived, he underwent surgery but would never walk again.

He was just 35 years old at the time of the accident.

Arrow’s advancements could mean big things for those with disabilities, a market that SAM Car team engineer William Pickard said is underserved, as well as other industries.

“What we want to do here is prove what advanced technology today can do to help those with quadriplegia or paraplegia,” he said. “We want to see technology like this go into other things, maybe controlling a combine, factory line or other equipment, being able to broaden the job prospects for users with quadriplegia or paraplegia and even for able-bodied people.”

Schmidt is also sponsored by BraunAbility, a manufacturer of wheelchair accessible vans and wheelchair lifts. The company invited a group of local wheelchair users to see and cheer on Schmidt’s demonstration.

It was, Schmidt said, a day meant to inspire those with disabilities and show how limitless their lives can be.

“The whole purpose behind this really is inspiration,” he said. “If a company like Arrow can convert a Corvette for me to drive in four months, it really says the sky’s the limit. You can do anything, anything you put your mind to as long as you get the right people involved.”

But the day wasn’t just one for celebrating the new technology and its possibilities. Schmidt was also in Phoenix to present BraunAbility’s Spirit of Ability Award to Ability 360, a local non-profit corporation that works to empower people with disabilities.

Ability 360 President and CEO Phil Pangrazio was on hand for the award, as well as forSchmidt’s run. Pangrazio said he was honored to receive such an award from a company that has helped so many people, as well as see Schmidt’s hard work and determination pay off with a few successful laps at PIR.

Schmidt’s efforts with racing after his accident mirror the goals of Ability 360’s programs, Pangrazio said.

“He didn’t give up his passion and wants to continue living his live just like he did before,” he said. “That’s what we want for everyone with a disability. There’s no reason to not continue living your life.”

While the demonstration might have been the focus Friday, Schmidt’s abilities as a driver, still so prevalent after all these years, shined through.

“I think everyone is just amazed at him driving around that track,” Pangrazio said. “It’s incredible just to think that he’s hauling butt around that track.”

“In the car, he’s so natural, he’s so talented and he had such great control, I forgot that when we stopped, he couldn’t get out himself,” Pickard said. “Out there on the track, it feels really natural to be with Sam. It’s what’s the car’s meant to do.”