INDIANAPOLIS – As Sam Schmidt rounded Turn 4 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to complete a four-lap run on Armed Forces Pole Day, he could hear the roar of the crowd.
It brought Schmidt’s Indy car career back to its beginning, when he started driving in the Verizon IndyCar Series in 1997 and qualified for three Indianapolis 500s.
Today at IMS, Schmidt drove a 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray specially modified to provide him controls to drive the car with his breathing and neck movements. He gradually improved his speed each lap to reach trap speeds of more than 150 mph.
“It’s a full-circle moment for me,” Schmidt said after parking at the yard of bricks on pit road prior to pole qualifying for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on the 2.5-mile oval. “Sixteen years ago, I thought I’d never drive again. For me to come out in such a high-performance vehicle and go pretty darned fast, it was really cool. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
The drive was part of a continuing Arrow Electronics SAM (Semi-Autonomous Motorcar) Project that began in 2014. Schmidt, a quadriplegic due to a crash in 2000 at Walt Disney World Speedway, will also make the drive Friday on Miller Lite Carb Day.
Schmidt drives the car himself. He controls the throttle and brakes with his breath, blowing through a tube to accelerate and sucking through it to brake, and turns the car with 3D camera glasses. As he turns his head, the steering wheel turns.
Robby Unser, a two-time Indy 500 starter and the son of three-time winner Bobby Unser, rode along with Schmidt to offer any necessary assistance.
“I was doing the navigator-riding mechanic thing. I tell you, he did an excellent job,” Unser said. “He was smooth. He used a lot of throttle throughout the run. He was able to be smooth on the throttle.
“I know that we went through the corners a few times at 95, almost 100 miles per hour,” Unser added. “Our goal in the turns was 80 (mph) and 120 on the straightaways. We were doing 130, it seemed like, on the straightaways. We averaged 105.6 over the four laps.
“What a wonderful thing for Sam. He was on the line. He was smooth.”
Schmidt has also worked with Arrow Technologies – primary sponsor on the No. 5 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda driven by James Hinchcliffe – to continue working toward improving the lives of people with disabilities. Schmidt said Arrow undertook the SAM Project, modifying the Corvette to allow Schmidt to control it, to help people with disabilities and push the project forward at a rapid rate.
Schmidt first drove the SAM car at IMS in 2014. Since then, he has proven the technology’s abilities on the street course at Long Beach, Calif., the winding permanent road course at Sonoma, Calif., and the short oval at Phoenix.
He had an IMS test run in the rain last week, saying he built speed and comfort every lap and “gassed it up” on the last lap.
“Arrow has a five-year-out initiative where they keep pushing things and seeing five years ahead, and what it’s capable of,” Schmidt said. “For everybody, their motto is ‘technology is there to improve people’s lives.’ For people with disabilities, that’s a greater impact. It’s fantastic to be a part of that.”
When Schmidt finished his run today, a host of Indianapolis 500 drivers was waiting for him.
“It means a heck of a lot,” Schmidt said. “I have a lot of respect for those guys (Saturday) dealing with the conditions they did (in qualifying). For them to come out and support me like they did today was really, really cool.”
He also has been inspired by the many positive comments from other people with disabilities and the crowd supporting him.
“I got into this and I do this just like being a race car driver 20 years ago, to go fast, to compete,” Schmidt said. “If we can inspire a lot of people to get into the industry and help out people with disabilities along the way, so be it.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity. I love pushing the envelope and do things that haven’t been done before. There have been a lot of positive comments from people who are inspired by the program and want to help out with technology and help out with the program.”