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.

Bourdais hopes last year’s crash turns into Indy 500 Cinderella story on Sunday

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Sebastien Bourdais has relived his May 20, 2017 crash during Indianapolis 500 qualifying over and over in his mind, day after day, week after week and month after month.

He would think of the worst crash of his open-wheel racing career at least once — if not several times — a day, particularly when he’d experience a slight twinge of pain.

“I think about it every day,” Bourdais told MotorSportsTalk. “Even though I’m functionally 100 percent now, it’s still very rare that during the day that there’s not a little pinch or something that reminds me of what happened.”

But this past weekend while qualifying for this year’s 500, one year later, the French driver said he was finally able to work past the mental roadblock that just would not leave his mind.

The solution was simple: complete the task he wasn’t able to do so last year, namely, qualifying for the race – and qualifying well.

Bourdais will start fifth in Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, in the middle of Row 2.

“(Last year’s crash is) still in my mind,” Bourdais said. “But I think the biggest hurdle, at least mentally, was qualifying last weekend, putting yourself back in the same set of circumstances, going back on the line there.

“It felt a little bit the same, chances of rain, some rain, delays, you get back in line, conditions change, everything gets harder because it gets hotter, but that’s the biggest hurdle to overcome. After that, it’s back to business.”

Bourdais has already won once in 2018 – the season-opening race in his adopted hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida.

It helped jump start him to a strong overall run in the first five races of the season, including a fourth-place showing two weeks ago at the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Indianapolis, coupled with entering the 500 third in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings.

Now, he wants to win the biggest race of his career. If he does so, he’ll feel as if he finally and completely has come full circle from last year’s devastating wreck that shattered his pelvis, going head-on into the Turn 2 wall at a reported 228 mph.

“Well, it’s the Holy Grail of IndyCar, it doesn’t really get any bigger than that,” Bourdais said of the 500. “It’s the biggest achievement that you can accomplish in IndyCar.

“I don’t think I’m any different than anybody else: we all want to win it pretty bad, but I’m sure after what happened after last year, it’d be a Cinderella story.”

But there’s a caveat to Bourdais writing that story: “There’s 32 other drivers that want to accomplish the same thing, and it’s a one day event. We’ll give it our best shot … you can only give your very best and see what happens on that given day.”

Bourdais has a lot going for him heading into Sunday. First off, he’ll start from the highest qualifying position he’s ever had in what will be the seventh Indy 500 of the 39-year-old’s racing career.

Second, his confidence and comfort level are higher than they’ve ever been coming into the annual classic at the 2.5-mile Brickyard oval.

Third, he’s forgiven himself – not IMS – for what happened last year. He has no ill feeling towards the racetrack, nor does he seek revenge. If he were to start thinking that way, it would serve no positive purpose.

“No. I’m not really that way,” he said when asked if he wants revenge over the racetrack. “The track didn’t beat me up, I beat myself.

“The bottom line is there were a couple of reasons why it happened, but I got more comfortable and more confident and confidence and comfort at some point just bite you at Indy.

“You just do your laps, you get into such a rhythm and the week had gone perfectly with an awesome car and there was not a doubt in my mind it was going to stick (going into Turn 2), and that’s when it happened – and I paid the price.”

So, Bourdais is simply going to go out and race, again, hoping to complete what he started last year before being so painfully derailed.

His best finish to date in the 500 has been seventh (2014). He just needs for his Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser – Sullivan Honda to finish six places higher on Sunday.

And if he does, his move to Dale Coyne Racing last year – he’s competed in 13 of 23 races with two wins, 3 podiums and one pole – would only serve to make what already has proven to be a great move into a potentially brilliant move.

Because, yes, Bourdais isn’t just thinking Indy 500 win, he’s also thinking of a potential championship this season.

“I sure hope so,” Bourdais said when asked if his team’s success will continue. “I like to say it’s (the success that the Coyne camp has had since he came there) a little bit of my baby, bringing in Craig (engineer Craig Hampson) and Olivier (race engineer Olivier Boisson) and reinforcing the existing crew.”

Bourdais is no stranger to winning championships. He won four straight combined titles in CART and the Champ Car World Series from 2004 through 2007 (he also won 28 races in that four-year span).

“Obviously, it’s one thing to get into a winning team and basically meet expectations,” Bourdais said. “It’s another thing to try and build something and change the status of the underdog and turn him into a contender week in and week out.

“We got a glimpse of that last year, and this year, we’ve been competitive every weekend so far, and that’s a great feeling. Once you’re able to be competitive on street course, road courses, short ovals and superspeedways, then you can start saying and thinking championship.”

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