Sam Schmidt has been a part of the IndyCar scene since the Indy Racing League iteration, back in 1997. He’s never won an IndyCar race as a team owner, until Sunday in Detroit with Simon Pagenaud’s No. 77 HP Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports Honda.
Asked how this compares to his more frequent winning in the Firestone Indy Lights Series, where the team has won the last three championships, Schmidt had a one-liner ready to go.
“This is better,” he laughed.
“I don’t know if I’d give up all those wins and championships for this, but this is really huge,” he said. “I know what Simon is feeling like right now because I had a chance to win one race as a driver (Las Vegas, 1999). It’s been a long road, a long journey these last 13, 14 years. Obviously, we wouldn’t be here today without Ric (Peterson) and Davey (Hamilton).”
Schmidt’s career path as a team owner is almost as circuitous as that of his lead driver and Detroit race two winner.
He didn’t choose the ownership path; a devastating testing accident at the Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando in 2000 left him paralyzed from the waist down. Come 2001, Sam Schmidt Motorsports, the team, was around in its first iteration.
Schmidt forged his path as an owner in Indy Lights, where between 2004 and 2012 he has won six championships and more than 50 races. He returned to IndyCar team ownership after the 2010 season, when he bought out the FAZZT Race Team co-owned by Alex Tagliani.
Tagliani drove for Schmidt into 2011, before a late-season driver change saw Tagliani replaced by that year’s Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon at Kentucky Speedway. Of course, tragedy struck at the Las Vegas season finale that year, when Wheldon was killed in a multicar accident.
It was undoubtedly the lowest point in Schmidt’s ownership career, but the team soldiered on into 2012 with Pagenaud as its new driver. The single-car team finished fifth in the championship, and Pagenaud won IndyCar Rookie-of-the-Year honors with four podium finishes.
Peterson has bought into the team this year, which now fields a second full-time car for rookie Tristan Vautier and also added a last minute third at the Indianapolis 500 for Katherine Legge.
Schmidt reflected on the recent grind of events leading to this victory on Sunday, and how the team has grown.
“We’ve grown substantially over the last couple years to I think 38 employees, partners there,” Schmidt said. “They’ve all meshed really well. I think we have a fantastic chemistry amongst all the guys. We’re all pushing the same direction. Nobody had their heads down. They knew what they had to do and they got it done.”