Paralyzed in Orlando crash, racing’s Sam Schmidt still defying odds

He stands as a testament to the unlimited power of the mind and the heart, proof that no obstacle can prevent one from having an impactful life.

Fourteen years after a crash in winter testing at Walt Disney World Speedway rendered him a quadriplegic, Sam Schmidt is a force in both IndyCar racing and the fight to cure paralysis.

It’s only technically true that Schmidt – whose racing team has two cars entered in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – is confined to a wheelchair. For “confined” doesn’t describe Schmidt at all.

This year, the husband and father of two from Las Vegas will spend about 150 days on the road, traveling for his racing operation, the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation and BraunAbility, which builds wheelchair vans and lifts and other accessories.

“I’m dumbfounded by what he’s able to do,” said former Indy 500 winner Eddie Cheever, who raced against Schmidt in the 1990s and will help call Sunday’s race for ABC-TV. “I have a hard time even thinking about it, because to think about it, I have to put myself in that position. I struggle mentally for even five minutes to think of what it must be like.”

What Schmidt lacks in mobility he has more than made up for with intellect, savvy and people skills. His managerial acumen has surprised no one, given that he has an MBA in International Finance from Pepperdine and was working as a hospital administrator by age 24. What has been a surprise, given his limitations, is what a thorn in the side he has become to those who have to race against him.

Treated the same

Besides collecting a record seven championships in Indy Lights, the sport’s top minor league, the team Schmidt now co-owns with Canadian businessman Ric Peterson has made major headway in only three seasons of full-time competition in IndyCar.

Lead driver Simon Pagenaud won two races and finished third in the points last year, tweaking the egos of established powerhouses Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske and Andretti Autosport. Rookie Mikhail Aleshin, the first Russian to compete in IndyCar, will also race for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on Sunday.

“Sam’s a smart guy and he’s very cerebral about racing,” said Ganassi, whose teams have won five of the last six IndyCar titles. “He thinks things through quite a bit. In the conversations I’ve had with him, I’m – he’s a competitor and I treat him as one.”

That Schmidt would have it no other way is practically unspoken.

“It’s funny, because I look at this as my reason for getting up in the morning,” Schmidt, 49, said. “It’s a 2 1/2-hour process getting up in the morning. But I have still have a passion for motor sports, especially open wheel racing, so that’s kind of what happens in my head every day.”

Schmidt acknowledges that his commitment was severely tested at the end of 2011. St. Petersburg’s Dan Wheldon was driving a car prepared by Schmidt’s team when he was killed in the season finale at Las Vegas. Schmidt says the tragedy shook him so badly he seriously considered getting out.

“It was just like this monster kick in the gut, and I’m thinking, ‘is it really worth it? Is it what I wanted to do?’ “ Schmidt said. “The answer, ultimately, was a resounding yes.”

Catastrophic, but avoidable

Cheever was at the Disney track on January 2000 when Schmidt’s car backed into the outside wall in turn 2.

Had the driver’s seat been constructed properly, Cheever and others say, Schmidt probably wouldn’t have been paralyzed.

“In those days, we weren’t taking as much care as we should have with the seats,” Cheever said. “They would end here (head-level), and that would be on your helmet, so the energy would go to the weakest spot, which would be your neck.”

Schmidt suffered a severe injury to his spinal cord between the third and fourth vertebrae. He and spent five weeks on a respirator. Later, he would say he didn’t remember anything about the crash, but he could remember someone telling his family to find a nursing home for him.

After 27 starts and a win at Las Vegas in the fledgling Indy Racing league, Schmidt’s racing career was done. Or so it seemed. But in 2001, after being inspired by paraplegic Formula One team owner Frank Williams, Schmidt formed Sam Schmidt Motorsports.

“I was very fortunate when I started the team because I was able to pick up the phone and call Darrell Gwynn,” Schmidt said of the Top Fuel drag racing star from Miami who was paralyzed in a 1990 crash and continued as a team owner. “At that time, Darrell had 10 years of experience on how to get around with a wheelchair. He gave me a lot of good insight. Whether it was flying, driving or getting around on land, he really helped my learning curve.”

Schmidt flies from city to city with the help of a retired fireman and, it can be noted, raves about Southwest Airlines. Two personal assistants help him get to and from the tracks and situated in his hotel rooms. The $30,000 wheelchair he uses at the tracks is maneuverable with head movements.

Supporting research

When he isn’t managing or working the business end of the race team, Schmidt is often advocating for stem cell research or representing his foundation. The foundation, started by Schmidt and friends who wanted to see him cured, has raised millions of dollars to support spinal cord injury research. A major new initiative is coming this year, Schmidt says.

And there has been progress. Since actor Christopher Reeve was paralyzed in 1999 in an equestrian accident and founded the Christopher Reeve Foundation, much has been learned. Reeve died in 2004.

“He was the first one to start pushing hard and saying, ‘well why?’ Why is this? Why is that?’ “ Schmidt said. “He started pushing the research community to do more, and I genuinely think we’ve accomplished more in the last five years than in probably the previous 15.”

Schmidt has always believed he will walk again, always believed he will walk his daughter, Savannah, now 16, down the aisle. He says he has never regretted taking the risks he did driving a race car.

“If given the option, I certainly wouldn’t want to be in this chair,” he said. “But I know that because I’m in this chair, I’m able to help thousands of people with our foundation and still participate in a sport I love. And I can still watch my kids grow up.

“So it could be better, but at the same time it could be a heck of a lot worse.”