IndyCar’s Sam Schmidt set to unveil SCI Challenge in bid to cure paralysis

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In 2000, Indy Racing League driver Sam Schmidt sustained a severe spinal cord injury in a testing crash at Walt Disney World Speedway and became a quadriplegic.

But he has soldiered on as both a winning INDYCAR team owner and as a champion for paralysis research and treatment through the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation.

By his count, the foundation has raised somewhere between $12-13 million since its inception.

However, Schmidt grew, in his words, “impatient” over the long-term timeline for a cure for paralysis, and he and his foundation – which has changed its name to Conquer Paralysis Now – searched for a way to generate faster progress.

The result is a project known as the SCI Challenge, which is set for a full introduction later this year. The Challenge will provide incentive for research scientists and the business community to team up by providing major cash awards for meeting specific milestones toward the final goal of a cure.

“I’m involved in my everyday life with running races and trying to compete for a prize and trying to be the first one to cross the finish line,” Schmidt told MotorSportsTalk in his motorhome at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“And I think that’s the way we should go forward with challenging people on a global basis to find solutions in a quicker fashion.

“I think it will encourage collaboration between private industry and public entities and research facilities. The feedback we’ve gotten is very positive and I think that it’s the way to go.”

CPN medical advisor Dr. John McDonald, a neurologist, research scientist and director of the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury, said in a statement that the Challenge was “a tremendous step forward and will change the course of paralysis.”

As for the idea of using prizes to fuel potential breakthroughs, CPN president Ida Cahill was charged with investigating that in the early stages of the project. She noted today that such prizes have been used at many points in history.

“Great Britain offered a prize in the 1700s because they lost an entire naval fleet because they couldn’t measure longitude,” she said. “So they decided to offer a prize and thought Sir Issac Newton would win it. But it turned out [the winner was] a clock maker [John Harrison]…

“What those prizes said to us is [that] we’re looking for a clockmaker. We’re looking for someone approaching this in an entirely different fashion.”

Cahill said the Challenge will involve three stages, with each of them building upon the success of the previous one. The first stage centers on higher-level research – “audacious, novel ideas” as she put it – while the second stage involves animal and human research models getting to clinical trials.

The final stage is what she calls “functional recovery,” which can mean different things for paraplegics and quadriplegics.

“If you asked people who are paraplegics, they will say ‘I’m OK being in a wheelchair – I don’t like it – but I’ve gotten used it, I can get around, and I can live like this. But what I want back to me that is most important is my privacy.’ So they’re looking for bowel, bladder, sexual function,” she explained.

“When you get to somebody who is a quadriplegic, they will say, ‘It’s awful being in a wheelchair, but the one thing I really want is that I want to move my arms. I would love to move my fingers. I would love to be able to hug my children or my loved one, brush my teeth, comb my own hair.’

“They have different wants and needs than the paraplegics. But this Challenge we’ve put together addresses both of those issues.”

Another key element of the Challenge will be a website that shall serve as a platform for scientists around the world to share both their successes and, just as important, their failures.

By putting the failures out in the open, other researchers will know which paths not to take and that in turn will hopefully lead to the faster progress that Schmidt and CPN want.

He believes that some in the medical community may be a bit reluctant to share their failures, but feels that it’s essential to the project.

“That’s never been done before and I think it’ll take a while for some people to get used to,” Schmidt said. “But I think it’s absolutely critical in making something happen quickly, that we encourage, and/or finance, and/or force people to publish their failures so others can learn from that and not do the same thing.”

Schmidt is also hopeful that a new sense of collaboration on the researchers’ side of the fence will take hold as the Challenge commences.

“Everybody just wants to write a paper, everybody wants to get funded through applications, and all of this very secretive, so why would you ask for help?,” he explained.

“With the prize format, I think it opens up an opportunity for researchers to go to companies and say, ‘Hey, I’ve done all this basic science, I’ve got all this information, this particular prize in front of me is absolutely suited for what I’ve been doing the last 10 years – help me win this prize and we’ll both share in the results.’”

That collaborative spirit was certainly on display in Schmidt’s recent drive around IMS in a Chevrolet Corvette that featured special electronics, an interface that helped him brake with a bite sensor, and also steer and accelerate in intervals by tilting his head.

Multiple companies, including Ball Aerospace, Falci Adaptive Motorsports, Arrow Electronics, and Schmidt’s own IndyCar squad, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, chipped in on the SAM (Semi Autonomous Motorcar) Project.

CPN was not directly involved with that initiative, but Schmidt believes that it was still a “proof of concept” for what the foundation hopes to do with the Challenge.

“It would’ve taken somebody at a university with a group of students five years to build that car,” he said. “It was done in nine months because we decided to do it and we had a deadline of last weekend. And it got done.

“I was like, ‘Man, why can’t we do that with paralysis? Why can’t we do that with the steps to paralysis?’”

The official unveiling of CPN and the SCI Challenge will take place Saturday during the foundation’s Racing To Recovery Gala in Carmel, Indiana – one day before Schmidt and his drivers, Simon Pagenaud, Mikhail Aleshin, and Jacques Villeneuve, set out to win the 98th Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Merhi confirmed for WEC return with Manor at the Nürburgring

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CEFC Manor TRS Racing has confirmed that Roberto Merhi will return to the FIA World Endurance Championship for next month’s 6 Hours of Nürburgring, replacing Jean-Eric Vergne.

Merhi previously raced for Manor in both Formula 1 and the WEC, making his most recent appearance with the British marque at last November’s 6 Hours of Bahrain.

Merhi’s last racing outing came in the Formula 2 double-header in Spain and has flirted with a move into Formula E, but was confirmed on Wednesday to be making his racing return at the Nürburgring on July 16.

Merhi will deputize for Vergne in the No. 24 Oreca 07 Gibson while the Frenchman is in New York for the city’s inaugural Formula E event.

FIA to re-examine Vettel/Hamilton Baku clash

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The FIA has confirmed that it will re-examine the clash between Formula 1 title rivals Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton in Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix to see if further action is warranted.

Vettel and Hamilton made contact twice behind the safety car in Baku, with the second incident deemed to be an act of dangerous driving on Vettel’s part.

The FIA stewards in Baku handed Vettel a 10-second stop/go penalty for the clash – the harshest available penalty besides disqualification – but faced calls to issue a stricter punishment post race.

Hamilton said that the incident set a dangerous precedent for F1 and wider motorsport, but Vettel believed his rival deserved a penalty for allegedly brake testing him.

On Wednesday, the FIA confirmed that it would be re-examining the incident in a meeting on July 3, with a verdict set to be delivered ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix.

More to follow.

Wickens not interested in full-time IndyCar switch despite practice run

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Robert Wickens is not interested in making a full-time switch to the Verizon IndyCar Series in the near future despite his practice run-out at Road America last weekend for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Mercedes DTM driver Wickens was called up for Friday practice at the KOHLER Grand Prix in the No. 7 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda after Mikhail Aleshin was unable to make it in time due to immigration issues.

Aleshin was able to return to the United States in time for Saturday’s final practice and qualifying at Road America, with Wickens stepping back down.

The Canadian got his first taste of an Indy car in a car swap with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe in March, paving the way for his practice appearance at Road America.

However, Wickens is not looking to make a full-time move over to IndyCar anytime soon despite enjoying his run-out, with his focus lying with DTM.

“Not really, to be honest,” Wickens said when asked if IndyCar was something he would like to move into in Mercedes’ ‘Tales from the Paddock’ press newsletter.

“I just want to race cars. That’s the main thing. I have no urge to leave the DTM at the moment.

“Everything is going well, and I’m really happy with Mercedes.”

Wickens also went into detail about how rapidly things moved with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, having only been told the day before practice that he was required for the running.

“I planned on having a relaxing weekend at home, but on Thursday afternoon I got a call from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, which is the team that we did the ride swap with involving James Hinchcliffe back in April,” Wickens said.

“They asked if I could go to Road America and fill in for Mikhail Aleshin who had immigration issues. Fortunately, Toto [Wolff] was happy for me to do it and I was able to jump on a plane and get to Wisconsin.

“We didn’t get to the hotel until about 10pm on Thursday, and Free Practice 1 was on Friday morning very early. It took some getting used to.

“The practice itself was fun. The track was really good. It would be amazing to have a DTM race there one day.

“I definitely wanted to do the full weekend, but the full-time driver got his immigration stuff sorted and he made it to the race track by Friday night. My duties were finished, but it was still a really fun Friday.”

Force India’s Celis gets FP1 appearances in Austria, Hungary

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Force India youngster Alfonso Celis Jr. will make his first Formula 1 race weekend appearances of the season next month, taking part in first practice for the grands prix in Austria and Hungary.

Celis, 20, joined Force India as a development driver ahead of the 2016 season, enjoying six FP1 run-outs across the course of the year.

The Mexican driver returned for 2017, taking part in pre-season testing and the running following the Bahrain Grand Prix in April.

Force India confirmed on Wednesday that Celis will return for FP1 in Austria next week, before also featuring in practice in Hungary at the end of July.