As driver Sam Schmidt cruises the historic Goodwood Racetrack in a McLaren 720S, reaching speeds in excess of 241 kilometers per hour, from the outside this looks like a regular practice session.
It navigates tight corners with ease, slipping even when the skies open to make the asphalt slippery. Get in the car, however, and it’s immediately obvious just how remarkable this track session is.
Schmidt is quadriplegic and completely paralyzed below the neck, making it impossible to use a steering wheel and pedal boats.
To change that, McLaren teamed up with American electronics company Arrow to produce the semi-autonomous mobility (SAM) car, which allows the former IndyCar driver to accelerate and brake by blowing and sucking a tube — called the “sip” function. and puff” — and drive by turning your head.
After his life-changing injury in 2000, the thrill of racing was something Schmidt never thought he would experience again.
“For 22 years I really had to rely on other people to do most of my daily tasks,” Schmidt told CNN Sport in Goodwood, UK.
“So when I first drove the car, it was like, ‘I’m actually controlling 100% of these functions.’”
“I have the throttle, brake and head movements, so there’s nothing else in my life that makes me feel so normal — and that’s spectacular,” he continued.
‘Rollercoaster of emotions’
Schmidt says he’s “lucky” not to remember much about the accident that turned his world upside down.
During a test session in Florida ahead of the 2000 Indy Racing League season, he lost control of the car during what should have been a routine practice lap and crashed into a concrete barrier at around 289 km/h.
Schmidt and his team went into that season with high hopes—so high, in fact, that he had real aspirations to win the title—but the year ahead would turn out to be very different from what he had imagined earlier that afternoon.
Schmidt spent six months in a grueling rehabilitation program at the hospital, often for more than five hours a day, before being discharged to begin his new life at home.
“A lot of people say, ‘How did you get over it?’ But the reality is that it affects family members sometimes more than it does me because of their lives and their expectations,” says Schmidt.
“I mean, it wasn’t my family’s goal in life to win the Indy 500. That was my dream, and because of my dream, I kind of messed up their plans.
“It’s a roller coaster of emotions. All this positivity and to think we’re looking forward to the 2000 season, I have a six month old, two and a half year old and it’s really just a picture of perfection here.
“We have everything, my beautiful wife and I have just won my first race at Indy. Just all kinds of positive things happening and then having it all turned upside down.”
The doctor’s initial prognosis was grim; at first they said that Schmidt had only a few weeks to live. Then they said he would likely be on a fan for the rest of his life.
At the time, the idea of Schmidt ever driving a race car again certainly seemed impossible.
In the early stages of his recovery, the pilot used his father’s own recovery from paralysis as inspiration to continue defying the odds as well as imagining his children growing up.
“He had intensive rehabilitation for two years to regain the ability to walk and talk,” says Schmidt of his father, who was paralyzed when Schmidt was 11 years old. “’Why can’t I?’ he thought.
“But I also had two kids who were six months and two and a half years old when I was injured, so I wanted to be around to watch them grow up and become adults, and it all happened in an unbelievable, unbelievable way.”
Once Schmidt and his family adapted to his new way of life, his thoughts turned to what he could devote himself to next.
Alongside his wife, Sheila, Schmidt founded the racing team Sam Schmidt Motorsports, which competed in the Indy Lights, the series below IndyCar. As a team owner, Schmidt enjoyed great success, winning 75 races and seven championships, before moving to IndyCar in 2011.
Sam Schmidt Motorsports can boast pole positions, race wins and a second-place finish in the Indy 500 — but a win in the prestigious Indy 500 still eludes them, something Schmidt is determined to change as he awaits his team’s new partnership with McLaren.
“At some point it’s like, ‘What do you do with the rest of your life?’ Before that, I was on the road 152 days a year. My wife would say, ‘You need to find something to do because it’s driving me crazy,’” laughs Schmidt.
“So, a year after the accident, we decided to start a racing team — completely naively, we didn’t know [que iríamos] involve it — but it was just a matter of taking two hours to get up in the morning, so what do I have the passion for to make it all worthwhile?”
‘What’s your dream?’
Even while he was in the hospital and struggling to come to terms with his condition, there was still something that made Schmidt realize how lucky he was.
“Being in a spinal cord injury hospital … most patients didn’t have good insurance, they didn’t have a family to support them, they didn’t have all these people coming together like I did,” Schmidt recalls. “So that’s why our group decided to start this foundation.”
While Schmidt says his Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, which was created in the months after his accident, aims to find a cure for paralysis, his main goal is to help millions of people like him around the world find their sense of “purpose in life.” .”
“How can we improve their lives? How can we show them that, with just perseverance, I was able to continue following my life’s dream?” says Schmidt. “So we challenged them: ‘What is your dream and how can you do it?’
“How can we do this so you can reach him? What’s your passion? Let’s see if we can figure out how to get there — and that’s really what the foundation does day in and day out.”
Schmidt quickly realized that his dream was to one day be back behind the wheel of a race car, a seemingly impossible ambition made real by a team of engineers at Arrow; in 2014, Schmidt drove a specially modified Corvette Stingray, the first version of the SAM Car, at 160 km/h at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Over the years, several Corvettes were modified with various versions of the technology until Schmidt got so used to the system that he started racing again, taking on the challenge of Pikes Peak in Colorado, a daunting 20-kilometer climb with 156 turns and 44,300 meters. of lifting.
Schmidt finished the course in 15 minutes, just six minutes behind the winner who drove with conventional steering controls. It was a remarkable feat of engineering and one that took a relatively short period of time to accomplish.
“From the moment we acquired the [primeiro] car, we developed everything in three to five months, from no modifications to driving at speed with all our systems working,” Arrow mechanical engineer Grace Doepker told CNN Sport.
“When developing for Sam, it was probably a little different than another person with a disability or one of our engineers, which we thought would be ideal. Sam is a racing driver, he comes from a slightly different perspective and wants a level of performance.
“So that really pushed our engineering capabilities to match what he was capable of as a racing driver, and because of his shortcomings, we had to make sure he was comfortable and had the best riding experience possible.
“It was definitely a labor of love — lots of long nights in the lab and garage putting it all together and sometimes we forget why we’re doing it. So when we put Sam in the car, it’s really nice to see, ‘Okay, that’s what it’s about — that’s what it’s for.’”
But Arrow’s work with Schmidt wasn’t limited to the track. Last year, he was able to walk his daughter down the aisle and dance with her at her wedding thanks to an exoskeleton costume, a moment that still moves Schmidt when he talks about it.
Schmidt still seems a little incredulous as he talks about the technology that has helped him achieve things he didn’t think were possible just a few years ago.
“It’s phenomenal,” he says. “It’s really hard to describe because for 15 years I never thought I would drive again and now not just on the street but on a racetrack. [como Goodwood] that is so iconic, it’s a wish list item. It’s a dream come true.”
Source: CNN Brasil