Schmidt back on track with inspiring Indy laps

A guy from Indianapolis, a Butler grad named Ed Carpenter, on Sunday earned his second consecutive pole position start for the Indianapolis 500 with an asphalt-blistering four-lap average speed of 231.067 mph. Carpenter’s car was the last one on the track.

A guy who lives at Lake Las Vegas, a Pepperdine grad named Sam Schmidt, averaged 73.713 mph when it was his turn to lap the venerable Brickyard. Schmidt’s car was the first one on the track.

Ed Carpenter’s run took talent and bravado.

Sam Schmidt’s was an inspiration.

On Jan. 6, 2000, just a couple of months after he won a race for Indy-style cars at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Sam Schmidt severed his spine in a testing crash at Walt Disney World Speedway in Florida. He was on a respirator for five months. He remains a paraplegic.

It had been 15 years since he drove at Indianapolis.

On Sunday morning, before the fast cars went out for final qualifications, Schmidt was placed behind the wheel of a specially equipped black 2014 Corvette Stingray. He used his head while circling the hallowed 2.5-mile oval.

He used only his head.

Which was more than a lot of A.J. Foyt’s rivals used back in the day, at least if you listen to ol’ Super Tex.

The project is called SAM — sort of for Schmidt, but mostly for Semi-Autonomous Motorcar.

Schmidt was able to drive it by using a cap fitted with sensors. By nodding his head left or right, the Corvette would turn left or right. A backward tilt of his head depressed the gas pedal; by using his mouth and biting down he could access the brake.

Sam mostly nodded left and backward on Sunday.

Afterward, there was a meeting of local auto racing luminaries on the pit lane. Schmidt discussed with ABC pit reporter Jamie Little, a Green Valley High graduate, what it felt like to be driving again at Indy.

“It was amazingly energizing but at the same time it felt normal,” said the 49-year-old car owner whose drivers Simon Pagenaud, Mikhail Aleshin and Jacques Villeneuve will line up for this Sunday’s 98th running of the 500 fifth, 15th and 27th on the traditional 33-car grid.

“I haven’t used my head to drive a car in 15 years, and everything was natural turning to the left, turning to the right. Gassin’ it. My goal was to average 100 mph but I hit it at the start-finish line, so next best thing. That’ll give us something to shoot for next time.”

Schmidt keeps happening for the longtime Las Vegas car owner, and Schmidt keeps confounding the other drivers by what’s he’s able to accomplish.

Had three-time Indy winner Dario Franchitti been wearing that hat with the dashboard sensors, the Corvette would have never gotten off the starting line. Schmidt’s ceremonial qualifying run left Franchitti shaking his head from side to side in awe.

This is what the Scottish leadfoot, whose own driving career ended last year after a frightening crash on the last lap of a street race in Houston, posted on his Twitter account: “Brilliant to watch @SamSchmidtOrg driving around @ims this morning. Nothing stops this guy!! #inspiration.”

And this, from NASCAR champion Tony Stewart: “Just saw @SamSchmidtOrg driving a car for the 1st time since he was paralyzed in an Indycar crash. You’re my hero, friend.”

Some people say that driving a racecar isn’t exactly rocket science, or Bobby Unser could have never done it. But Schmidt said driving that Corvette with his head was exactly that.

“Had a lot of great engineers from Arrow (Electronics) and Ball (Aerospace) and the Air Force,” he said. “It just shows what you can do when you put your head together with a bunch of brave minds. They did this in all of nine months, from start to finish, and solved a problem that’s been around forever.

“It’s really re-inspired me. I’m even more reassured now that we can solve paralysis, if we just get the right people together and the right resources.”

Before the run for the pole, ABC ran one of those up-close-and-personal features on Schmidt. It struck an emotional chord, especially when he said that when he crashed, his daughter Savannah was just 2 years old.

Now she’s 16. She doesn’t remember a single hug from her daddy, or a single bounce on his knee.

“But I have no regrets,” Sam Schmidt said. “Only hope. And thousands upon thousands of hours of sweat equity invested in my recovery. Because the dream is still the same.

“When my little girl gets married, it will be her father who walks her down the aisle.”

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski