INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Mario Andretti showed everyone just how far technology has come in the world of racing.
On Saturday, the 77-year-old racing icon made a late pass in the grass and pulled away from Sam Schmidt in the final straightaway on the Indy track to win a semi-autonomous car race, an exhibition event where the real winners might be those trying to get back in the driver’s seat after suffering severe injuries.
Schmidt has been paralyzed from the neck down since a crash in January 2000.
“This is absolutely phenomenal. The benefits that this will provide worldwide to individuals like Sam, war veterans and so on and so forth; that alone with what Arrow Technologies has done is so noble,” Andretti said. “Again, I can’t say enough for how good this can be. It needs to be known that this technology is available.”
The two former IndyCar racers drove side-by-side and traded leads several times, controlling the cars with a high-tech headset that connected with infrared cameras on the dashboard. They steered by tilting their heads, accelerated and braked by breathing into a tube and switched gears by using voice commands.
At times, the cars topped 130 mph on Indy’s 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course.
For the 52-year-old Schmidt, it was a treat to get back behind the steering wheel.
“It feels normal. It’s the first time in 17 years I’ve felt normal,” he said. “There are so many things I haven’t been able to teach my kids to do, to throw a football to driving a stick shift. To be able to come back and do this kind of stuff makes up for it a little bit.”
Schmidt has been a longtime favorite in Gasoline Alley and has stayed involved in the IndyCar Series as a team owner, starting a low-budget team and turning it into a multi-car effort that has emerged as a serious contender.
Since getting hurt, he has played a prominent role in raising money for spinal cord injury research and has been vocal supporter of promoting technological advancements, including self-autonomous cars.
Andretti’s only other win at the historic Brickyard came in the 1969 Indianapolis 500.
Since then, it’s been mostly heartbreak for the Andretti family. Mario Andretti was the 500 runner-up twice after his win and his grandson, Marco, finished as the 2006 runner-up. Michael Andretti, Mario’s son and Marco’s father, led more laps in the race than any other non-winning driver.
So, of course, when Schmidt challenged one of IndyCar’s most famous drivers to a race, Andretti said yes. Now, Schmidt wants a rematch.
“He didn’t cut me any slack, that’s for sure,” said Schmidt, joking.
INDIANAPOLIS – Here’s a rundown of times and notes from Saturday at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test, as all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder had their first day of testing on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. A link to Friday’s notebook is here.
Drivers and teams alike have raved about the pace, and the rather loud sound, of the new Tatuus PM-18 Mazda. Reports from private testing had the new car rather close to Indy Lights pace at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and rather quicker than the old car at Road America. The first tangible evidence of that occurred today as all 10 of the Pro Mazda drivers who got representative laps (second BN Racing car of Leonard Hoogenboom ran only a few laps in session four after engine issues all day) supplanted the Pro Mazda lap record at IMS – 1:22.8800 by Pato O’Ward in 2016 – easily. Oliver Askew’s best time of 1:19.8920 in the second session was nearly a full three seconds quicker on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course.
Of the 11 Pro Mazda drivers that ran today, only Carlos Cunha, Robert Megennis, Nikita Lastochkin, Kris Wright and Sting Ray Robb ran in the 2017 season. But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see any or all five of them running full-time in 2018 for what would be each of their second seasons in the championship, as returning sophomores along with what should be a glut of strong rookies. Wright, who also races sports cars, looks poised to add a second program of some other series to a planned Pro Mazda full season.
Megennis is planning to test with other teams in the weeks to come, as he tests for Juncos this week after racing in USF2000 with Pelfrey the last two years. Both he and Robb missed portions of sessions today with new car issues.
Several Indy Lights spins and off-course excursions occurred but none produced any serious issues. Rinus Veekay and Anthony Martin were among those to test the course limits but kept on going unharmed. Veekay had a spin in session three on new tires, then promptly laid down the fastest lap of the session for Belardi later on.
His teammate this weekend, Nico Jamin, wound up with the fastest lap of the day in Indy Lights – although he wasn’t quickest in the cool evening session, the fourth of the day, when most of the field ran some sticker tire runs on their Cooper tires.
Pro Mazda title combatants Victor Franzoni (Juncos) and Anthony Martin (Andretti) made their Indy Lights test debuts. The perpetually happy Franzoni wrote on Instagram, “Awesome day!! We finished the day in P3!! The most import we learned a lot!! Tomorrow will be even better!!” Martin, meanwhile, said this: “It’s obviously a new car – bigger, faster and a lot more downforce, so I’m adapting to it and growing up to it nice and slowly. You don’t want to push yourself too early, so we’re working up to a few things. You have to do things a lot quicker and you have to use a lot more brake pressure.”
In USF2000, it was an excellent day at the office for Pabst Racing with Andres Gutierrez – who impressed in a pair of weekends with DE Force Racing this year – leading three of four sessions, while teammates Hunter McElrea and Lucas Kohl were also in the top-five. Pabst has been busy running cars in both USF2000 and Pro Mazda this weekend.
Beyond Pabst, Newman Wachs Racing also had an excellent day, mainly with sophomore Darren Keane and Californian rookie Jake Craig. Keane, who’s coached by Ozz Negri, led the fourth and final session of the day, and stands as a driver who could make a big leap forward in performance if he secures a full season in 2018.
Another team of note today was BN Racing, with Callan O’Keefe – Keane’s teammate when both drove for Team BENIK at this race weekend last May – second best on the day. The South African is poised to be that team’s lead driver next season. Teammates Elliott Finlayson and Zoey Edenholm are working towards seasons of their own; Finlayson having coming off a recent Super Sweep in SCCA Runoffs competition at IMS last month and Edenholm having only just graduated from karts into cars just this month.
While the USF2000 field was primarily rookie-dominated, two-year series veteran Aaron Telitz made a cameo return today with RJB Motorsports, and brought the ex-ArmsUp chassis its best pace yet in RJB’s hands as the Wisconsinite ran with Mirl Swan and Alex Barron’s crew support. Past RJB driver and two-time Team USA Scholarship, Michai Stephens, was also on site today.
Speaking of ArmsUp, its top rookie from 2017, Devin Wojcik was on hand today making the rounds as well, although wasn’t in a car. He looks to return to USF2000 for a second season in 2018.
USF2000 boasted some good diversity with Pabst, BN, Newman Wachs, Exclusive, Pelfrey, BENIK and RJB teams in the top 10 today, but there’s one notable omission: Cape Motorsports. The seven-time defending champions in the series are not testing in USF2000 this weekend, and has just a single Pro Mazda car on site for Oliver Askew. Granted, the team is also at Circuit of The Americas this weekend for F4 U.S. Championship action, where Kyle Kirkwood has taken that series’ championship. DE Force, which also ran in USF2000 this year, is also not here this weekend as it’s at COTA. ArmsUp isn’t here this weekend either.