Sam Schmidt never thought he would get the opportunity to race Mario Andretti. For that matter, he never thought he would race again at all. Or even drive a car.
But thanks to his partnership with Arrow Electronics, those dreams have become reality for Schmidt, an Indy car driver turned team owner whose promising career was cut short when he suffered life-threatening injuries in a test crash at Walt Disney World Speedway in 2000.
Schmidt has worked for the last three years with Arrow to develop technology that enables paraplegics to operate a motor vehicle. He’s thrown himself full force into the opportunity to demonstrate a world of new possibilities for paraplegics like himself and others.
He demonstrated the rapidly evolving system several times since 2014 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. Last summer, he successfully guided the Corvette up the famous twisty mountain route followed by the Pikes Peak Hill Climb.
Arrow has developed technology where 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.
Acceleration and braking is controlled by blowing or ‘sipping’ a breathing tube, while head motions control the car’s direction. Schmidt has logged thousands of miles in Arrow’s Corvette development car, moonlighting from his day job as the owner of the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team that competes in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In December 2015, he used the technology to participate in iRacing.com’s annual competition between professional racers, marking the first time he has participated in a race since before his accident seventeen years ago.
Now he’s going to go up against another car with a driver using the same Arrow-developed control system. That’s where Andretti comes in.
“I got a note from Sam sometime late last year, saying, ‘Hey, I’d like to do a head-to-head race next May against Mario Andretti,’” related Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles. “I thought he was crazy, but I thought Mario might be even crazier, and Mario actually agreed.
“We announced this at Long Beach this year and the press conference was almost like a sparring match between two title fighters who are going to compete for the heavyweight title.”
For Mario, not only does the race offer him the chance to get back behind the wheel on a competitive basis. It’s an opportunity for arguably the greatest driver in the world to learn and demonstrate a whole new way of controlling a vehicle that promises to be a game-changer for people with disabilities that limit their ability to drive.
The two-car semi-autonomous shootout will benefit Conquer Paralysis Now, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization and a leading authority on spinal cord injury research and treatment founded by Schmidt. You can make a $10 donation by texting ‘SAM’ or ‘MARIO’ to 50555.
Schmidt admitted that as recently as three years ago, he never considered the possibility that he would be able to drive a car around a racetrack, or even on city streets.
“I really didn’t think driving was an option for 15 years since the accident,” Schmidt acknowledged. “I just sort of wrote it off. But Arrow came up with the idea and the concept. 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 time we’ve been working on it. But that’s what this race is 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.
He came into contact with Arrow as a sponsor for his IndyCar team and it has developed into a life-changing relationship – for him and potentially for thousands of others.
“I’ve always been of the nature that you can do whatever you put your mind to,” Schmidt said. “But this is really cool to find a private corporation with the desire to get something done. It starts at the top. Mike Long (Arrow owner) has said that we are going to be unselfish, we are going to create this type of technology, and we’re going to invest the money on our own. We’re not going to ask partners to pay for it, and when it’s all done, guess what, we’re not going to patent it. Anybody can come to them and get this technology and help people in their daily living, improve their lives, allow for people with disabilities to have jobs with this type of technology. That resonates throughout the whole company. It’s an unbelievable atmosphere.”
What better way to demonstrate the possibilities than by drafting in the world’s most famous racing driver? Andretti has long been known for his desire to race anything, anywhere, but this time, he literally needed to teach himself how to drive all over again.
With barely two days of practice, he knows that he’s likely to get waxed by Schmidt, the project’s development driver.
“I’ve never been so nervous in my life,” laughed Andretti. “I haven’t had any sleep the last two nights, and I’m not going to have any sleep tonight.
“I’ve been following this program from the very beginning, watching Sam doing his thing the first year, and I think it’s just great to see what Arrow is doing by allowing anyone that’s interested to come in and to hand over the technology if they want to obviously pursue it and go further with it.
“Driving the car is easy in the sense that if you can keep the concentration and know the technology that you have at your hands, it’ll do exactly what they say it does,” he added. “You have to remember not to look at your rear view mirror because if you move your head to look at your rear view mirror, you’re just going in the grandstands.”
At Long Beach, Schmidt joked that if Andretti beat him in their race, he would provide Mario with a ride in the 2018 Indianapolis 500. Much as Mario would like to race an Indy car again, he’s happy enough just to get the chance to go one-on-one against Schmidt.
“All I can say is please don’t lap me, because there’s no Lucky Dog rule here,” Andretti said. “I can’t get back on the lead lap, so that’s all I ask!”