Head-Turning Speed

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News September 2017

Sam Schmidt and Mario Andretti compete in a first-of-its-kind semiautonomous motorcar race around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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Mario Andretti sounded nervous in a press conference the day before his semiautonomous motorcar (SAM) showdown against paralyzed racecar driver Sam Schmidt. That’s atypical for one of racing’s legends. Andretti was antsy about the learning curve after turning practice laps two days before the May 13 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS). Schmidt said their top speed was 152 mph on the straightaways.

“I’ve never been so nervous in my life,” Andretti says, smiling. “I haven’t had any sleep the last two nights, and I’m not going to have any sleep tonight.”

Schmidt, a quadriplegic, wasn’t buying any of that.

“I’ve been thinking for 15 hours how I think he’s sandbagging,” Schmidt says of Andretti. “I think he’s pulling an Al Unser or a Bobby Unser-type era thing where he’s like, ‘Oh, I’m so slow, give me my hands back. I’m so slow, give me my feet back. You know what, let me forget the controls, let me drive the car, because I don’t want to be last.’ That’s all he said was, ‘Don’t lap me.’ I’m thinking all night, he’s just playing us, right?”

IMS President Doug Boles acknowledged that Andretti needed some time to get a sense of direction and understanding of the controls during their test drive.

“You did apologize to me for almost running over some [IMS Safety Patrol] yellow shirts you shouldn’t have been mean to,” Boles says to Andretti.

Adds Andretti, “This is the first time in my racing career that I’m not asking for more horsepower. I’m truly scared, but I trust it.”

High-Tech Racecars

Schmidt’s 26-race IndyCar career ended just as he was starting to succeed. He had won his first race at Las Vegas in 1999. He never had the opportunity in his career to race against the already-retired Andretti, whose 52 career IndyCar wins rank second in history. Andretti is still the only driver to win the Indianapolis 500 (1969), Daytona 500 (1967) and a Formula One World Championship (1978). But when Andretti and Schmidt raced each other for four laps in SAM cars at IMS,  the driver who has been without the use of his arms and legs since a 2000 IndyCar crash had extensive experience in utilizing the global technology of Arrow Electronics to operate a car modified with advanced human-machine interface (HMI) controls.

“It was totally intuitive,” Schmidt says. “It does everything just like your feet would do. The technology has really, really evolved like anything in technology since we’ve been doing it for three years. I feel totally comfortable in any scenario. We hit 140 miles per hour on the straightaways, so it’s serious business. We finally evolved into wearing helmets and incorporating more safety devices, so it’s all good.”

Schmidt, 52, wore a high-tech headset that connected with an infrared camera mounted on the dashboard of his Chevrolet Corvette Z06 SAM Car. This enabled him to steer with head-tilt movements by looking in the direction he wanted to go. The processor translated data from the camera and sensor to a rotary actuator on the steering wheel. For acceleration and braking, Schmidt used a sip-and-puff mouthpiece device connected to the gas pedal, which depressed based on the amount of air Schmidt would exhale, and he sipped on the straw to slow down. Andretti, who at 77 stays active by providing two-seater IndyCar rides at Verizon IndyCar Series tracks, had the same setup in his Chevrolet Stingray SAM Car. But whereas Andretti had to acclimate himself in a few practice laps on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile IMS road course for this first-time, head-to-head race of semiautonomous cars, Schmidt already knew what he was doing. Schmidt first partnered with Arrow in 2013 to create this car and made a memorable debut in a 2014 Chevrolet Corvette C7 Stingray SAM Car on May 18, 2014, by reaching 97 mph at IMS. He has since driven a SAM car on the Long Beach street course and the Sonoma Raceway road course, both in California, and another course used for the annual Pikes Peak Hill Climb in Colorado.

Competitive Juices

The race benefited Conquer Paralysis Now, a Schmidt-founded nonprofit organization and leading authority on spinal-cord injury research and treatment. Fans could text donations on Twitter by choosing either MARIO or SAM to win.

“Our mission statement is to cure spinal-cord injury, ultimately,” Schmidt says. “We also know there are a lot of steps that have to be accomplished before that. We have created challenges in chronological order of things we think we need to do to get to that ultimate goal.

“It’s all about knowledge, it’s all about publicity, it’s all about showing people what they can do if they put their mind to it. They can get back to work. They can have a family. They can have kids. They can pay their mortgage, put food on the table. That’s what this technology can help hundreds of thousands of disabled people do.”

Schmidt isn’t just putting words behind this — the quadriplegic has lived it. He’s been driven to prove what once seemed impossible is in fact possible. 

“You can drive a tractor. You can drive a crane. You can drive a locomotive,” he says. “All that stuff can be done from your living room with this technology. Veterans who need some motivation to go on with life, we’re hoping we can create technology to allow them to do that.”

Schmidt refused to quit making a career in racing. Sam Schmidt Motorsports was created about a year after his life-changing test drive crash on Jan. 6, 2000, in Orlando, Fla. He celebrated six driver championships in the developmental Firestone Indy Lights series. Since 2001, he’s been a Verizon IndyCar Series team owner or co-owner with five victories, including this year with James Hinchcliffe at Long Beach. Arrow Electronics is the primary sponsor on Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Honda-powered Schmidt Peterson Motorsports car. Schmidt has also won the Indy 500 pole twice, with Hinchcliffe in 2016 and Alex Tagliani in 2011.

Those competitive racing juices were flowing the day before Schmidt and Andretti took center stage prior to the INDYCAR Grand Prix.

“I want to win. Absolutely,” Schmidt says. “I don’t even think we have a trophy, but I want to win.”

He anticipated the legendary Andretti would race him hard.

“I know he will,” Schmidt says. “That’s an Andretti.”

Close Finish

And that’s precisely what happened. They exchanged the lead throughout the four laps. As the race reached its climax, Schmidt wanted to give his competitor room but exited the final 14th turn too high. Meanwhile, Andretti cut the corner. Schmidt had planned to chase Andretti down and pull ahead just before the famed “Yard of Bricks” start/finish line, but his car slowed too much out of that final exit. Andretti crossed the line first. As the cars came to a side-by-side stop, Hinchcliffe ran over to greet his boss.

“Hey, Mario!” Hinchcliffe shouts over the roof of Schmidt’s car. “Sam wants a rematch!”

Schmidt lamented that last turn. 

“I was trying to do a little late apex thing, and I went a little far to the left to cut in, and the thing just wouldn’t turn,” he says. “We must have got into some marbles. I was turning with my head and I was on the gas, but it wouldn’t turn. My head is trying to steer. So I had to lift off the throttle. It straightened up and I went again. We kind of finished off his left rear quarter panel, about 15 feet shy.”

Andretti sounded more relieved than triumphant.

“Now I can sleep tonight,” Andretti says. “I tell you, this one really had me going. I had to shut off all my natural senses because, obviously, you just need all the practice you can get. And they gave me every opportunity, but still, I really wasn’t too sure. I didn’t know how much I could trust myself. I’m just thankful the cars are coming in with all the fenders on.” 

Schmidt was excited about the thrill of racing again. He did a celebratory tire burnout at the end of the front straight.

“The first time in 17 years I’ve felt normal,” he says.

Several days after their encounter, Schmidt reiterated his demand for a rematch. And Andretti offered a confession about the outcome.

“The ruling is that actually, by all intents and purposes, I cheated,” Andretti says of cutting the last corner. “Fact is, he waited for me anyway. I think I surprised him when he waited for me. I turned and went in the grass. I thought he was going to blow right by me then, but I didn’t know he got caught up in the marbles.”

How tight did Andretti cut that corner?

“All four wheels in the grass,” he says. “Believe me, I did it right.”

Andretti was realistic about not being Schmidt’s equal in a SAM car.

“No way. No way,” he says. “He was kind to me. He was too kind to me. No way I can compete with him right now with the knowledge and the senses that he has. He’s the man.”

Schmidt was amused at the suggestion that Andretti, whom he called a “smart, old codger,” was supposed to let him win.

“The word ‘Andretti’ and ‘let somebody else win’ is like an oxymoron,” Schmidt says. “That’s not humanly possible. I knew he was going to give me everything he had. I purposely was following him the first three laps through 12, 13 and 14 to try to set him up for the last lap. He snookered me, cut the turn and got about 15 car lengths on me, and I couldn’t make it up by the start/finish line.

“He got out of the car and said, ‘I cheated.’ He went below the apron and cut the corner. I thought he was next to me. I gave him room. Before I noticed he wasn’t there, he was gone. He also went through 14 about twice as fast as he had the previous three laps.”

Schmidt smiled, then offered one more amusing observation.

“The reality is I kind of felt sorry for Mario,” Schmidt says. “He’s so old, and he hadn’t won at the speedway in 48 years. I figured I have a lot more opportunity to win here than he does before he passes on. So I just wanted to give him a going-away present, so to speak.”

For more information on Conquer Paralysis Now, visit


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