Quadriplegic Races Mario Andretti in Semi-Autonomous Corvette at Indy
Sam Schmidt gives us all a lesson in overcoming adversity.
Sam Schmidt had the race of his life this past Saturday at Indianapolis. Paralyzed from the neck down, the 52-year-old former Indy Racing League driver competed against the the one and only Mario Andretti on the circuit in a pair of semi-autonomous (SAM) Corvette Z06 racers. Though he might have come in second place, we think you'll agree that Schmidt is the real winner of the day, getting back on the track almost two decades after his horrific crash at Walt Disney World Speedway. And his post-race comments say it all: "It was the most normal I’ve felt in 17 years."
The development of this contest began in 2014 when Arrow Motorsport approached Schmidt about building the semi-autonomous Corvettes. In response, Sam simply said “If you build it, I will drive it," quickly adding “If we don’t go at least 100 miles per hour, don’t call me back.” Since losing the ability to walk and use his arms after his accident in January of 2000, Schmidt stayed involved with the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports racing team, but he's been unable to do much from the driver's seat. So once Arrow announced they could build a car to meet his standards, he was all in.
If you're curious about the tech, Arrow Motorsport has a fascinating explainer on their website. But to sum it up, Schmidt can use his head and mouth to control the whole car - he blows on a tube to accelerate, inhales through it to brake, and steers using head movements that are tracked by a series of cameras on the dash. He already tackled the famed Pikes Peak hillclimb last year, but this would be his first head-to-head race on a track.
Schmidt then hatched the idea to race against Mario Andretti in Indianapolis, one of the most fabled racers in the track's history. They were both given two identical Corvettes, pitting them against each other at the famous circuit without any mechanical advantages. The crowd cheered loudly for Schmidt despite a close second place loss, and he rewarded their support with a few post-race donuts—a celebration he likely thought he'd never get the chance to perform again.
According to the Indianapolis Star, Arrow Motorsport will not patent the technology, allowing other companies to build off its base and create similar systems for similarly handicapped individuals in the future.