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Engines silent, but IndyCar team boss motors on during pandemic

Updated April 17, 2020 - 3:21 pm

Sam Schmidt was one of the last sports people with whom I spoke before it closed for business.

It was during the West Coast Conference basketball tournament at Orleans Arena on March 9. The IndyCar team owner and longtime Henderson resident, who went to Pepperdine, asked via cellphone how the Waves were doing.

This was a few days before the scheduled IndyCar season opener in St. Petersburg, Florida. Schmidt’s team had joined forces with McLaren, a brand synonymous with success in auto racing at its highest levels.

Arrow McLaren SP had a new driver lineup with promising newcomers Patricio O’Ward and Oliver Askew; two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso had signed to drive a third team car at the Indianapolis 500; and seven-time NASCAR kingpin Jimmie Johnson had formed an unofficial alliance with the team in the hope of driving in selected races in 2021.

Schmidt, or at least his race team, was happening.

The conversation took place before the WCC semifinals. Pepperdine already had been eliminated. But Schmidt’s optimism still was running higher than that of the Gonzaga faithful inside the arena.

Back in the media center, someone had placed a bottle of hand sanitizer next to the WCC stat sheets and game notes.

The yellow flag was out.

They brought out the red one that Thursday.

Writing checks

Instead of preparing for the Long Beach Grand Prix, Schmidt talked about playing Rummikub and Scrabble with his family when we spoke this week. He has been doing everything he can to hold his team together during social distancing.

Make that teams.

Arrow McLaren SP has 55 employees, none of whom have been laid off or furloughed.

Schmidt’s other team, the 11 physical therapists and trainers at the Driven NeuroRecovery Center in downtown Las Vegas, still are getting paid, too.

He mentions in the same sentence his race team and the one at the fitness center devoted to helping those with disabilities improve their physical, mental and emotional well-being.

“We consider our team members our number one resource,” said Schmidt, a quadriplegic who has been confined to a wheelchair since suffering a racing accident in January 2000.

Having graduated from Pepperdine with a finance degree, he used an accounting analogy to describe the current state of affairs in IndyCar and the NeuroRecovery center he founded.

“Everybody on the accounts payable side, and everybody on the accounts receivable side, they realize we’re all in this together.”

Moving forward

In racing when there’s a crash or other calamitous incident, a driver’s instinct is to steer straight for it. The thinking is that when he arrives at the spot, the carnage usually will no longer be there, owing to inertia and physics.

There are no easily definable proprieties and tenets that can be applied to this virus pandemic, because so little is known about how to safely return from it. Schmidt may be more prepared than most, given all he has endured since his race car backed into the wall and his life was changed forever.

He said he has always been a glass-half-full guy.

“I wish I wasn’t paralyzed for 20 years, but I got to watch my kids grow up and be part of a family and still pursue my dream with the race team and drive that Corvette,” Schmidt added about receiving a license by driving a semi-autonomous sports car with his mouth and head.

There is little this man cannot do when given time and resources.

“Working out at Driven, I see a lot of people with disabilities not as bad as mine — and some that are worse than mine,” Schmidt said. “Ninety-nine percent of that population does not have the support I have. They’re using public transportation, public assistance, and are just happy to go on with life.”

Once again, perspective is called for.

The Indianapolis 500, the largest single-day sporting event in the world, has been postponed by the virus. But engines that have been silenced will roar again, Schmidt says. When the time is right, Pepperdine will play basketball again.

“For all those reasons, I look at this like just another detour on the road map of life,” the race team owner says while waiting for the green flag to fall and trying to put down “chutzpah” for triple points on a Scrabble board.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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