'Reengineering Sam' chronicles Schmidt's journey to drive again

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Brian Malone was already a longtime Indy car fan when he signed on to make a documentary about Sam Schmidt.

Reengineering SAM

Malone remembers writing book reports on legends like Al Unser, A.J. Foyt and Johnny Rutherford when he was a kid. But even that knowledge and passion for the sport couldn’t prepare the Colorado-based filmmaker for the force that is Schmidt, the INDYCAR team owner whose career as a race driver ended abruptly when he was paralyzed in a January 2000 testing crash.

The result is “Reengineering Sam,” the film that debuted this week as part of the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis. The last of its four local screenings takes place at 10:45 a.m. ET Saturday at the AMC Castleton Square 14.

“I have this tangential childhood fantasy of Indy car racing. It was a huge deal to watch the Indy 500 on ABC Sports growing up in the 1970s,” said Malone, who traveled to Indianapolis this week for the premiere of the documentary tracing how Schmidt, a quadriplegic, was able to drive a semi-autonomous motorcar (SAM) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May 2014.

The film – written, directed and produced by Malone – documents how Schmidt lives his daily life in Las Vegas and runs his businesses and Verizon IndyCar Series and Indy Lights teams from his wheelchair. It also traces how Schmidt collaborated with Arrow Electronics on the SAM project.

“I’ve worked a lot with quadriplegics and paraplegics and what I see from that community is it blindsides most people,” Malone said. “It’s rare that you see someone as inspirational and as strong and as just kind of like, ‘Let’s just keep moving forward’ like Sam. Most folks don’t get there. And I think that’s an amazing thing and the reason why Sam made such a good story. He has that really rare quality.”

The film premiered Oct. 23 as a part of Heartland, which is based in Indianapolis and exists to support purposeful filmmaking. It attracted the interest of Tony George, the Hulman & Company board chairman, and his wife, Laura, and they invited Malone to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a tour.

“I saw a ton of amazing stuff,” he said.

Malone began the “Reengineering Sam” project at the invitation of Dr. Scott P. Falci, chief neurological consultant at Craig Rehabilitative Hospital in suburban Denver. It was Falci who recommended Schmidt drive the SAM car as Arrow – now a sponsor of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ program in the Verizon IndyCar Series – undertook the project. Craig Hospital is known for its work with spinal cord injuries and Malone’s business creates corporate videos for the hospital.

“Dr. Falci had this harebrained idea that he wanted to put a quadriplegic in a race car,” said Malone. “The big culture at Craig is that, when someone is paralyzed, the hospital tries to teach patients and families that, yes, their lives changed but they are not over.”

The film follows Arrow’s engineers and Schmidt through the developmental process. For race fans, one of the most moving scenes in the documentary is the day Schmidt gets in a simulator to learn about operating the car with head and mouth movements. After a short practice, he speeds around the virtual racetrack at more than 200 mph, leaving everyone around the simulator teary-eyed.

The story of the SAM car is one familiar to many INDYCAR fans. Since those memorable laps around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval in 2014, Schmidt has also driven the car on Verizon IndyCar Series permanent road and temporary street courses. He returned to IMS this May and pushed the Corvette C7 Stingray above 150 mph. The following month, he drove the car on the treacherous Pikes Peak Hill Climb course.

But the emotional and sometimes raw scenes in “Reengineering Sam” take it far beyond the motorsports audience. And it brought the community around the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR closer to Malone.

“What I learned and hope to communicate in the film to the outside world is that once you’re indoctrinated into the culture and the family of INDYCAR racing, it really is a family,” he said. “It’s a cultural thing that really runs through the veins. I really felt it when I was shooting the film.”

Tickets for “Reengineering Sam” are available online for $9 at heartlandfilmfestival.org or for $12 at the theater box office.

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