Schmidt offers inspiration to drivers

Schmidt offers inspiration to drivers

Published May. 27, 2011 10:01 p.m. ET

Sam Schmidt's blue eyes never stop moving. They dart from one side to the other: checking out what's going on over in that corner of the garage, keeping a lookout for those who might not see him coming, and always - always - searching for the next opportunity.

His body may be motionless below the shoulders.

But, oh, there's so much going on behind those eyes.

''I don't have time to get depressed. I don't have time to think about what I can't do,'' said Schmidt, parked in one of the few quiet spots in the bustling paddock at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. ''I just have to figure out how to do what I have to do.''


Schmidt was a rising star in the IndyCar Series when a devastating crash more than 11 years ago pulverized two vertebrae in his back and left him a quadriplegic. Some people might have folded. He went all-in - Schmidt lives in Las Vegas, after all - and turned those awful cards into a winning hand.

Yep, there's plenty he can't do anymore.

But, oh, there's so much he can do.

Schmidt started a foundation that raises money for those trying to find a cure for catastrophic spinal injuries. He reached out to others in a similar predicament, spreading the word that life doesn't have to end when the arms and legs stop working. Most important, he turned his passion for racing in a new direction, starting his own team.

''Sam's brain is unbelievably active,'' said defending Indy 500 champion Dario Franchitti. ''You realize he's a very, very smart guy. He loves racing, and he paid a huge price for that love.''

Make no mistake, Schmidt would have preferred a nice, long career behind the wheel to life in a wheelchair.

''I'd be lying if I said I don't have bad days,'' he said. ''I remember like yesterday what it was like to go around this place at 220 mph. When a driver is talking to me and I can't use my hands to describe what I would feel and how they should react, it frustrates the heck out of me. I do miss it.

''But,'' he added, ''I guess this is kind of the second-best thing.''

There was nothing second-best about Schmidt's fledgling team during 500 qualifying. Alex Tagliani turned four laps around the historic speedway at more than 227 mph, putting the No. 77 machine on the pole for Sunday's race. Schmidt, the who guy goes only as fast as a chair will take him, choked up as he celebrated the stunning accomplishment with his Canadian driver.

Tagliani was moved as well. He's racing for a higher purpose these days.

''I think he sees himself driving through me,'' the pole-sitter said. ''Being able to contribute a bit to his joy means a lot to me. Now, I want it to happen every weekend. It flames a desire inside of me.''

Schmidt was on top of the world as one millennium gave way to another. He had just witnessed the birth of his son. He was coming off his first career victory - at Las Vegas, no less - and a fifth-place finish in the 1999 season standings. He even had the look of a star, embracing the spirit of his adopted home by growing Elvis-style sideburns.

His life was headed up, up, up.

Then, just six days into the 2000s, it all came crashing down.

During a routine winter testing session at the Disney World speedway near Orlando, Fla., Schmidt's car slammed into the wall and crushed his spine. He doesn't remember that day or much of what happened for the next week, which he considers a blessing. When he awoke, everything below his neck seemed lifeless. He needed help from a machine to take his next breath.

''The original doctor in Orlando told my wife, `Just find him a nursing home. He'll be on a ventilator the rest of his life,''' Schmidt recalled.

Within six weeks, he was breathing on his own. Then he got started on a new life.

There was an aborted attempt to get into the Indy Racing League as a car owner. When the money dried up, he dropped down into the Indy Lights development series, building a powerful team that won championships year after year. Then, just before the start of this season, he learned that the financially ailing FAZZT team was up for sale.

''The best way to describe Sam is he's an opportunist,'' said Townsend Bell, who will start fourth on Sunday in Schmidt's other car, the one-off No. 99 entry. ''He gets motivated by opportunity. There is something that someone else maybe didn't see, but Sam sees it. It's simply incredible when you think about what he's accomplished.''

Schmidt scoots around the garage like he owns the place, controlling his wheelchair with subtle taps to his headrest. He moves through the crowds with amazing precision - veering to his left, darting to his right, stopping suddenly when someone walks out in front of him. He wears a Bluetooth in his ear to answer his cell phone. He uses a special system to monitor the Internet and his emails.

''The physical side is what's really amazing,'' Bell said. ''He's so self-sufficient going around the track, cruising around, answering his phone. When I'm not around him physically but we correspond by phone or email, I don't even remember (he's paralyzed). He's typing away in an email and then you realize, `Oh yeah, he can't actually type.'''

Back in January, the two of them met in San Francisco to discuss a business deal. All Schmidt asked was for Bell to rent a van and pick him up at the airport. Unfortunately, the vehicle had a low-hanging center console that forced Schmidt to tilt his head awkwardly to one side for the entire, hour-long drive - which ended up being even longer when Bell missed an exit.

''I said, `Sam, this is ridiculous. Let's go back and try to get another van,''' Bell recalled. ''He's like, `No, no, I'm fine.' His head was jammed up into the ceiling, but he said, `I do it all the time.' ... He was on the phone the whole time, just chatting away.''

Schmidt stays as busy as possible so he doesn't have time to fret over what he can't do. He's up at 6 a.m. every morning. He's go, go, go until he finally dozes off sometime around midnight. Then he gets up and does it all over again.

''The days lead into weeks and then months, and the years flip over faster than I can imagine,'' Schmidt said. ''I can't imagine it's been 11 1/2 years. That just seems remarkable to me.''

He's encouraged by all the progress that been made in spinal research the last few years, but increasingly impatient that more hasn't been done. He keeps the pressure on his foundation, more convinced than ever that it's just a matter of time before a cure is found - if enough money is raised to do the necessary research.

Schmidt hasn't given up on the ultimate triumph.

''I work out every day,'' he said, his eyes turning steely and focused, ''with the thought that I will get out of this chair.''