The acrid smell of high octane fuel and burning rubber was in the air at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Sunday, much as it was the last time Sam Schmidt drove in a competitive race at his hometown track.
The date was Sept. 26, 1999.
The longtime Henderson resident blew past that year’s Indy 500 winner Kenny Brack of Sweden three laps from the finish en route to the only victory of his IndyCar career. Less than four months later, Schmidt suffered life-threatening injuries in a testing crash at Walt Disney World Speedway that rendered him a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the shoulders down.
He doesn’t remember the crash. He recalls winning at LVMS as if it were yesterday.
“Definitely remember standing up there (on the victory podium) with Mayor (Oscar) Goodman and the showgirls,” said Schmidt, who would turn to owning Indy-style cars rather than driving them after his long and arduous rehabilitation.
But incredibly, he’s driving a race car again.
It’s a specially equipped Corvette C8 that he controls with his eyes, voice commands, cameras and sensors. When we spoke, he was strapped into the sleek flat black car, no more than a few hundred yards from the big oval where Schmidt had pumped his fist in jubilation after passing Kenny Brack 21 years ago.
In a few minutes, he would be going back out on the LVMS road course to compete in the Optima Ultimate Street Car Series against able bodied drivers in a series of time trials. “It’s kind of a dream come true,” Schmidt said with a turbocharged grin.
It has been seven years since Denver-based Arrow Electronics contacted him about driving the semi-autonomous race car it was developing. It has been a fortuitous relationship. Arrow also has become the primary sponsor of Schmidt’s IndyCar team.
The knowledge learned on the racetrack through the SAM (Semi-Autonomous Motorcar) program is converted to everyday applications that can help others who have suffered catastrophic injuries lead more productive lives.
“This technology can allow others with disabilities to go back to work, watch their kids play baseball, communicate on an everyday basis,” Schmidt, 56, said as the Arrow technicians made adjustments on the Corvette before sending him back on the track.
When he trimmed nearly four seconds off his time, he wasn’t the only one smiling.
Faster than expected
“I have to say Arrow pretty much overshot what they thought they were going to be able to do, because now we’re actually competing,” said nine-time Pikes Peak International Hillclimb champion Robby Unser, the son of Indy 500 legend Bobby Unser and Schmidt’s co-driver (in case of emergency).
The two have topped 150 mph in a straight line, gone head to head against Mario Andretti on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and tackled Pikes Peak. Schmidt puts down the hammer with his head and mouth while Unser mostly gestures with his arms in a futile attempt to slow him down.
When the final times were posted Sunday, Schmidt ranked 14th among 56 drivers in his class. Unser was asked what his 87-year-old father, nearly as famous for speaking his mind as he is for three Indy 500 victories, would have made of it.
“At first, he was kind of like you guys are just screwing around. But after he saw Sam went quicker than he thought, he said ‘Oh, this is actually a significant program.’ So I think everybody who has looked at this is is impressed.”
Unser believes a podium finish in the Street Car Series would be a reasonable goal for Schmidt and the Arrow team. He also has a message for their skeptics.
“If you don’t think this is hard, you are more than welcome to drive it like he does,” he said. “He’s brave enough to go out there, and I’m apparently crazy enough to do it with him. So here we are.”