Ex-racer Sam Schmidt sits behind the steering wheel of his majorly-modified Corvette Stingray at Indianapolis. (Photo: Bruce Martin)

Ex-racer sits behind the steering wheel of this modified Stingray at Indianapolis. (Photo: Bruce Martin)

INDIANAPOLIS – During his Indianapolis 500 career as a driver, Sam Schmidt made three four-lap qualification attempts to make the starting lineup of the race from 1997-99. Schmidt’s best qualification effort came in 1999 when he started seventh in the 33-car starting lineup.

Yet Schmidt made his most impressive four-lap run Sunday morning, when he drove a specially prepared Corvette Stingray around the 2.5-mile oval.

First, a little background.

In 1999 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Schmidt drove to his only career IndyCar win for Treadway Racing, and it appeared that he had a bright future ahead of him.

But, in a test session at Walt Disney World Speedway on January 6, 2000, Schmidt crashed his IndyCar and was paralyzed from the neck down. Schmidt did not let his disability keep him out of a racing. He soon became a successful team owner in the Indy Lights and IndyCar Series. In fact, Simon Pagenaud drove Schmidt’s Dallara/Honda IndyCar to victory in the 2014 Grand Prix of Indianapolis at the , and qualified the car fifth for next Sunday’s .

Despite the fact he does not have the use of his legs or hands, Schmidt drove a simulated four qualifying laps in the SAM Project (Semi-autonomous motorcar) passenger car in a specially equipped 2014 Corvette C7 Stingray. It was the first time that a semi-autonomous passenger car has been drive at speed on a racetrack using integrated advanced electronics.

Schmidt was able to control the car through head movements and breathing to get the car to respond to his commands.

Schmidt got emotional during his drive, but not for the reasons he thought he would.

“I thought it would be great to be at IMS and the history of tradition at this place,” Schmidt said. “This place was founded on automotive innovation so all of that meant a lot. But what got me choked up was the immense satisfaction and feeling of normalcy I haven’t felt in 15 years.

“To be able to drive a car for the first time in 15 years was extremely normal and I don’t get that feeling a lot. I don’t get a chance to toss the football with my kids or dance with my daughter or all those normal things that other people get to do. This was incredibly normal and that is what got me so emotional.

“Then to come into the pits and see my mom and dad crying really added to the emotion of it.”

His four-lap average was 73 miles per hour, but his top-speed when he crossed the “Yard of Bricks” on the frontstretch was over 100 mph.

“There isn’t one word to describe it (laps around the Speedway),” Schmidt said. “It’s exhilarating, it’s unbelievable, it’s amazingly normal – that’s the big thing. It just felt natural, that was the biggest surprise. When you turn your head, push my head back to go faster, and the braking system, it just felt like I was driving again.

“This (project) started nine months ago. The most amazing part of this thing is that this is a 75 or a 100-year old problem and these people got together and solved a problem in nine months.”

The participants in the SAM project included Michael J. Long, chairman, president and CEO, Arrow Electronics, Inc.; Chakib Loucif, vice president, engineering, Arrow Electronics, Inc.; Timothy Choate, senior business area manager, aerospace and cyberspace technologies, Ball Aerospace; James Christensen, PhD, applied neuroscience branch, Air Force Research Laboratory; Dr. Scott Falci, chief neurosurgeon, Craig Hospital, founder, Falci Adaptive Motorsports; and Schmidt.

“Kudos to Aero, Ball and the Air Force for putting all the systems together,” Schmidt said. “Hopefully this technology will apply to a lot of other technologies and help a lot of people. (The speed) I crossed the bricks on my last lap at 100 miles per hour and that was the goal; check that one off the list. I’m inspired by this project; it has re-energized me to see if we can find a cure for paralysis in my lifetime. Again, we have to get the right minds in the right place and with the right amount of resources working on it.

“If this motivates a lot of people and inspires them to do great things – fantastic. This technology is translational and can help a lot of people – mobility, transportation, medical devices; it has a lot of applications.”

Loucif of Arrow Electronics recalled the genesis of this project and how the collective group was able to work through to get to this day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“This came together with Sam with two aspects – giving Sam the ability and the freedom to get back to driving and how to leverage the technology and push it to the edge,” Loucif said. “We used sophisticated equipment available in the industry today. We integrated it all together and developed proprietary software for the guidance system and guide by wire, all the control pieces, GPS, for additional safety. It all came together for Sam to drive the car.

“Sam has only the capacity (to move) from the neck up. From day one, we wanted to develop a system for Sam that would allow him to control a car by using his natural movements with his head. Tilting his head to the left will turn the car to the left, to the right then to the right; he uses a pressure sensor in his mouth to bite on and the harder he bites, the harder he brakes. We enable Sam to interact with the vehicle. Here we are today, nine months into the project.”

Choate of Ball Aerospace spoke of how the latest advancements in technology made this possible and how further development could help drivers with other disabilities regain some of their lost independence.

“We have the human-machine interface technology and designed the algorithms which then took his head control, digitized it, and then sent that signal to the car so the car could respond to him,” Choate said. “Ball Aerospace has been in the human-machine interface technology for 25 years; how the human acts with a computer.

“We received the car in December (2013), started hard-core coding and algorithms development in January and we brought the car here for the first time on April 7. We got our scientists and engineers together to look at what Sam could do and understanding what he can do and what technology can do to augment him so he could control the care safely – and safety was the biggest issue that we were concerned about.

“This is a very specific example of providing hope to people with disabilities to restore their independence.”

Many drivers at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway sent warm regards and greetings to Schmidt after his four laps around the track, including one former IndyCar driver that used to race against Schmidt back in the days of the old Indy Racing League.

“I got a message from Tony Stewart and he told me how great it was that I was able to do that,” Schmidt said. “To get that message from Tony really meant a lot to me.

“A couple of my drivers came up after the run and said, ‘You know, you have been harping on us to turn in later all month and you didn’t do it.’ That was kind of funny.”

Schmidt had no apprehension getting behind the wheel of the car and giving it the gas. Although, instead of pushing the accelerator with his right foot he had to do it with the use of a specially-made cap that controlled the accelerator and the steering wheel, while the brake activator was a tube placed in his mouth that he would have to bite on to work the brakes.

“I’ve been working with these guys for almost nine months and a lot of times in conversation we use the term ‘Rocket Science’ loosely ,but this is truly rocket science and these guys are rocket scientists,” Schmidt said. “I had no issues whatsoever with concern over the thing working. I’ve been in the simulator a couple of times and it worked flawlessly. I had no apprehension at all.

“I’m looking forward to the next evolution of things where we can maybe take it for a spin on city streets and do some other fun things.

“It’s the first time in 15 years where I’ve literally been the driver.”

There were 33 qualification attempts Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to fill the field for the 98th Indianapolis 500, yet Juan Pablo Montoya, the 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner, said the most significant four-lap run was made by Schmidt in the Corvette C7 Stingray.

Tags: , , ,