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Henderson’s Schmidt in driver’s seat at Indy

To most people without grease under their fingernails, to people without calendars in the garage showing scantily clad women striking suggestive poses in front of candy-flake Camaros and GTOs, to people without a need for speed, they are little more than car No. 77, car No. 55, car No. 81. Three numbers in the official program.

Their drivers are unheralded, the sort one who is unlucky might draw in the office pool — and try to throw back in the hat when nobody is looking.

But to quadriplegic IndyCar team owner Sam Schmidt of Henderson, they are a reason to get up in the morning. They are his cars in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, which, with all respect due the Daytona 500 and the Pork The Other White Meat 400, still is the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

When the ladies — four women are in this year’s race — and gentlemen start their engines for the 97th time, Schmidt’s attention will be on the back half of the starting grid. Toward Lafayette.

After missing last year’s race due to heart surgery, 82-year-old Jim Nabors will sing “Back Home Again in Indiana,” and if you grew up there and are sitting among the throngs in the massive grandstands, you will get a chill up your spine. It’s automatic.

And then the field of cars, including the No. 77 of Simon Pagenaud of France, who will start outside on the seventh row; the No. 55 of rookie Tristan Vautier, also of France, inside Row 10; and the No. 81 of Katherine Legge of England, outside Row 11 — 33rd and the last car in — will roll away, and Sam Schmidt will get a chill up his spine, too.

Sadly, Sam will feel the chill only when it gets to his shoulder blades, because a terrible testing crash in 2000, when he still was driving in the 500, has left him paralyzed from the shoulders down.

He gets around in a voice-activated wheelchair. If his drivers get around the 2½-mile oval as well as Schmidt gets around in that chair, there’s going to a surprise winner at the ol’ Brickyard on Sunday.

And then Sam will have an even bigger reason to get up on Monday morning.

“Reason to get up in the morning” is Sam Schmidt’s euphemism for becoming a car owner at the Indy 500. He said watching his kids grow up was all the reason he ever needed for getting up in the morning following his terrible crash. But owning these cars gives Schmidt a chance to tread Indy’s hallowed ground again and again and again.

He’s 48 now, long past the age when today’s drivers retire to go fishing and/or become commentators, if they’re fortunate enough to avoid the retaining walls.

When we spoke Monday, Schmidt was coming from dinner in Indianapolis. He sounded in great spirits. He said his plan, if you can call it that, in 2000 was to race for maybe three more years. Then he would retire and become a full-time businessman, falling back on the finance degree he earned from Pepperdine University.

Sam Schmidt always was good with numbers, and not just the ones in the high 220s with a “mph” tacked on.

Maybe he would have gone to a couple of races a year as a spectator, he said, because once auto racing gets into the blood, it cannot easily be exorcised.

But then the wall at Walt Disney World Speedway got in the way and changed everything.

Sam Schmidt never complains about it, never complains about much of anything, in fact, and if you ever hear him speak of nearly paying auto racing’s Ultimate Price, it’s probably about a set of new springs for his Honda-powered race cars.

Schmidt has been entering cars at Indy since 2001. His best finish was sixth in 2002 with fellow Henderson resident Richie Hearn behind the wheel, but that was before the unification of open-wheel racing. His best finish since the CART-Indy Racing League merger was ninth last year with veteran Townsend Bell in the driver’s seat.

But it was just two years ago that Alex Tagliani, who used to live here, too, put one of Sam’s cars on the pole at Indy and led 20 laps during the race. And how cool was that, for Sam to see his car running out front, ahead of the Penskes and the Ganassis and Michael Andretti’s squadron?

Pretty darn cool, if you ask Sam Schmidt.

And if you ask Sam Schmidt, don’t count the No. 77 car out of this year’s race. Once the green flag falls, he said, the guys in the Chevy-powered cars won’t have nearly the advantage they did in qualifying, and don’t forget his guy Pagenaud raced his way into the top 10 as a rookie last year before getting boat-raced on a late restart. He finished 16th, on the lead lap. Simon says: He won’t get boat-raced again.

So when the ladies and gentlemen start their engines for the 97th time Sunday, Sam Schmidt of Henderson will have three cars in the field, the same number as the great Roger Penske. When his alarm goes off on race day morning, my guess is that Sam already will be up.

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

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