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Christopher Di Virgilio

Meeting the 2017 S`NS Junior Athlete of the Year


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Race of a Lifetime

Reprinted from SNS July 2017

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

Mario Andretti convinced himself that he was at a distinct disadvantage.

That he was racing against a paralyzed competitor, Sam Schmidt, makes Andretti’s assessment seem absurd. Perhaps the man whose name is synonymous with his sport was just being kind?

Actually, no. Andretti was being honest.

When Andretti and Schmidt raced each other for four laps in semiautonomous motorcars (SAM) on May 13 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (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.”


A Learning Curve

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.

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 it was Andretti, from the get-go, who sounded nervous about this SAM Car challenge. A press conference the day before their showdown provided entertaining banter.

“Just take it easy on me,” says Schmidt, the quadriplegic sitting in a wheelchair.

“Just take it easy on me,” says Andretti, the Hall of Fame legend. “We might not be friends after tomorrow.”

Andretti was antsy about the learning curve after turning practice laps two days before the race. 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 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 the May 11 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.”

For more information on Conquer Paralysis Now, visit conquerparalysisnow.org.

 

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Race of a Lifetime

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