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Twenty years after being paralyzed, Sam Schmidt still helping others

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In a world of glasses that are half-empty, Sam Schmidt is a glass half-full kind of guy.

Having been surrounded by motorsports his entire life, Schmidt knows very well that racing is a sport that can be both physically and mentally exhausting at times. 

Within a short timeframe, competitors can experience both the highest of highs and lowest of lows. Two decades ago, Schmidt experienced both. 

Sam Schmidt in 1998. Photo: David Taylor/Allsport

During the 1999 Indy Racing League season, Schmidt took over the seat vacated by the retired Arie Luyendyk at Treadway Racing. He scored his first IRL victory from the pole position in the penultimate round of the season in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas. 

Schmidt finished fifth in the points standings and looked to be a title contender in 2000.

Additionally, with a 6-month old son, 2-year-old daughter and a wife of seven years, Schmidt’s family life was great as well.

But little did Schmidt know at the time, within a few months his life would change.

On the morning of Jan. 6, 2000, Schmidt was preparing for the new IRL season by taking part in an open test session at the now-defunct Walt Disney World Speedway near Orlando.

The morning test session would be the last time he would sit in an Indy car after a violent crash during the session nearly took his life.

“We backed into the wall, and it was kind of the imperfect storm,” Schmidt said of his accident. “The seat was old technology. The headrest was old technology. There was no HANS device at the time. All that stuff.

“[The safety crew] took me out on a board and neck brace. I wasn’t breathing, so they had to resuscitate me and get in me a helicopter. In just a normal test with just our team, I’d be dead.”

Because it was an official series test, mandatory safety crews and a helicopter were on site and ready to assist. 

Schmidt was airlifted to an Orlando trauma center for treatment. He sustained a catastrophic spinal cord injury and was put on a ventilator, something his doctors told him he would never be able to live without.

“It was a couple weeks in when they were literally telling me that I was going to be bedridden for the rest of my life,” Schmidt said. “Luckily my dad had a similar diagnosis 20 years earlier (from an off-road racing accident), and he wound up able to walk and talk and get through rehabilitation.

“[His father’s accident] was more of a brain injury than a spinal cord injury, but he overcame the odds. Our family had that experience, and they just started calling other rehabilitation hospitals and different experts in the field, and I think about three weeks after my accident they had me transferred to St. Louis. They got me off a ventilator within six or seven weeks after my accident, so it just goes to show you to always get a second opinion.”

Schmidt was never able to walk again. But despite his diagnosis, he refused to lose hope in life, buoyed by unending support from his wife and children. 

Cards and letters of support began to pour in from all across the motorsports community. Schmidt knew that things certainly could have been worse.

By never losing hope, Schmidt since has accomplished many feats in his life since becoming a quadriplegic. In 2001, just 14 months after his crash, he founded Sam Schmidt Motorsports (now Arrow McLaren SP). 

Schmidt drives his semi-autonomous Corvette during the 2019 500 festival parade. Photo: Dana Garrett/IndyCar.

Since its founding, the team has gone on to win seven IndyCar races and seven Indy Lights championships. Schmidt travels more than 140 days a year to support his team.

He also serves on the board of directors of BraunAbility, an Indiana-based manufacturer of wheelchair accessible vans and wheelchair lifts, and has worked closely with Arrow Electronics to create a semi-autonomous Corvette that he is able to drive via head movements.

In 2016, the technology developed by Arrow even allowed Schmidt to receive the nation’s first driver’s license for a semi-autonomous vehicle.

But despite all of the aforementioned accomplishments, perhaps the most amazing thing Schmidt has ever done is help countless of other individuals through his foundation, Conquer Paralysis Now.

While in the hospital, Schmidt became aware that some of the other patients experiencing similar injuries would not have the chance to receive the same attention and financial support as him simply because they did not come from the same background. That was something he wanted to change. 

“I don’t want to say that I didn’t need anything, but I didn’t need anything compared to the other 19 people there,” said Schmidt. “We were all kind of sitting around one night saying ‘this is ridiculous’.

“I’ve got all the support, a great family, the motorsports community – and all of these people are the ones that need it. That was really the impetus for starting the foundation.”

Conquer Paralysis Now was founded in 2000 originally as the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation. It has since raised nearly $20 million towards paralysis research and rehabilitation. 

Schmidt’s efforts have also gone on to benefit other drivers who have suffered accidents, including sprint car driver Kevin Swindell and Schmidt’s own IndyCar driver Robert Wickens.

“We’ve had phenomenal efforts with our research over the last 20 years,” Schmidt said. “I think Kevin Swindell was one of our first guys who was able to get up walking after his accident.

“Now Robert [Wickens], having a lot of knowledge about it, knowing what to do quickly in making things happen, it ensures the best outcomes.”

The foundation recently opened the DRIVEN Neurorecovery Center in Las Vegas, which features a gym, rehab equipment and skilled trainers to help patients. 

Schmidt said that part of his reasoning behind opening the center was the lack of reimbursement and support patients and their families received from insurance companies following injuries.

“I was in the hospital for my recovery for six months,” Schmidt said. “Now anybody in my situation with the best insurance would be lucky to get two months.

“They take you home and say ‘you’re on your own’ and your house isn’t ready and the families aren’t ready, you’re not ready physically and mentally, and it’s just a disaster.”

With DRIVEN’s aim to ensure individuals with disabilities receive proper treatment, Schmidt hopes to expand the program throughout the United States. The road to ending paralysis may be a long one, but for Schmidt, it’s a road worth traveling down.

“You’ve got to look at things glass half full, either that or glass half-empty,” Schmidt said. “This injury sucked, and I wouldn’t put it on anybody, and in my choice, I wouldn’t want to be in this chair.

“But you can look back and count the thousands of lives this has positively affected and with the other things we’re doing with BraunAbility and the team, it’s easy to find some motivation to do some of the things we’re doing.”

More information on Conquer Paralysis Now can be found at their website, www.conquerparalysisnow.org

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Inside IndyCar’s iRacing revolution: Oliver Askew, team take it seriously

SimMetric Labs
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No laps have been turned in the NTT IndyCar Series this season, yet rookie Oliver Askew incessantly is analyzing fresh lap data with his Arrow McLaren SP team.

For the past two weeks, Askew has turned hundreds of laps in iRacing at Watkins Glen International and Barber Motorsports Park, and his support team meticulously has scoured the data in real time.

Race engineer Blair Perschbacher, assistant engineer Mike Reggio and strategist Billy Vincent are connected via all the software and timing systems that are on Askew’s real-world No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet. After every run, numbers instantly are crunched, and Askew debriefs with his crew on improving the handling of his car in search of every fraction of a second as he would in real life.

WATCH: IndyCar iRacing Challenge, 2:30 p.m. ET Saturday, NBCSN or streaming here

The only difference is Askew is sitting inside a simulation rig housed by a 45-foot trailer in West Palm Beach, Fla., while each team member is in an Indianapolis area home.

“They basically set up their own timing stands in their living rooms,” Askew told NBCSports.com. “It’s awesome.”

It’s the new reality for IndyCar, which will play host to the second round of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge at 2:30 p.m. Saturday (NBCSN) at virtual Barber Motorsports Park.

Last Saturday, Askew started and finished fifth at Watkins Glen International, where he practiced with the advisement of his team for more than 15 hours in the SimMetric Driver Performance Labs simulator. Despite a relative sim racing newbie, Askew, 23, finished only two spots behind Will Power, who has more than 1,500 starts and 150 victories on iRacing road courses.

Askew already has practiced for more than 10 hours this week in his simulator for Barber, where he hopes to make the podium against a 29-driver field that will include many champions and winners.

“We’re taking this very seriously,” he said. “You can tell by the results at Watkins Glen. You know which drivers have built their sims properly. How much they’ve been practicing. Those are the guys who finish up front.

“I’m still trying to represent everyone. It’s cool we have the same paint scheme. We’re just trying to represent Arrow and our partners the best as possible. We know they’re all watching, and it seems the viewership is going up.”


The Jupiter, Florida, native has found an edge through his friendship with SimMetric Driver Performance Labs, which is based in nearby West Palm Beach, Florida. Askew and SimMetric CEO Greg De Giorgis met last year through mutual friends. Last year, Askew had done a few simulator sessions before winning the 2019 Indy Lights championship (and graduating to the ride with Arrow McLaren SP).

With an official simulator partnership in the Road to Indy program, SimMetric’s CXC Motion Pro II simulator travels in a trailer to racing events around the country, providing drivers with extra preparation time for the real world.

The full-motion simulator includes a motion system developed by drivers and engineers, hyrdaulic brakes and force-feedback steering system. Though at the high end for simulators available to the general public, it retails for much less than the seven-figure simulators used by auto manufacturers with race programs.

“While time in a driving simulator will never fully replace real seat time, sim seat time can go a very long way in supplementing the seat time a driver gets,” De Giorgis told NBCSports.com in an email. “With three added benefits you don’t get in the real car: Significantly lower cost per hour, no risk of bodily harm or damage to the car, and of course, no limitations on time.”

There are some limitations for how much Askew can practice, though. A schedule was set up last week so the team, Askew and De Giorgis (who helps run the simulator and maintain communications with the team) could work together while also maintaining self-isolation with their families.

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The trailer with the simulator is parked indoors at the Riviera Beach, Florida, shop of Extreme Velocity Motorsports, which also has an unofficial affiliation with SimMetric.

“We’re practicing social distancing and making sure the trailer and everything is clean,” Askew said. “We’re taking that very seriously. It’s still a job for me, so I need to get what I can out of it.”

He’s gotten a lot from it despite a lack of experience. The team can compare simulation data from iRacing to real-world historical data from past races and test sessions.

Reggio handles fuel data, and Simpson monitors strategy and timing. While setups are fixed for the iRacing IndyCar Challenge, Perschbacher is able to work with brake bias. “He’s just trying to bend the rules as much as we can,” Askew said. “We’ve done a lot with brake bias. That’s pretty much all we can change.”

Fans also can watch Askew practicing via a YouTube channel provided by De Giorgis, who has chatted with viewers about the car’s laps in real time during the streams that are available by clicking here.

Fans will be able to find a live stream of Askew’s race Saturday by clicking here.


It’s all relatively new to Askew, who doesn’t even have a sim rig at his Indianapolis home. His previous sim experience mainly came on the Chevrolet simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina.

“Honesty, for me personally, I’m a little late to the party,” Askew said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that. I’m young and they assumed I’ve been doing this. I’ve never even had my own iRacing account before. Guys like (McLaren driver) Lando Norris, (Watkins Glen winner) Sage (Karam), all these guys have been streaming live on Twitch and have been running iRacing for multiple years now.

“ It’s a great way to get fans engaged in the race weekend and get eSports get bigger and bigger every year. Very interesting moving forward. It’s cool that IndyCar has dipped their feet into these waters now. Even once the season starts, I wouldn’t be surprised if we do more of these races.”

If so, he and his team have learned to keep an eye on Power, a real-world ace on road courses. During some practice races Thursday, Askew thought he’d done well by qualifying third, but Power then put a half-second on the field by winning the pole position.

“Will is unbelievably quick and does the same things in real life as well,” said Askew, who did turn the fastest lap in the practice race. “He just pulls it out somehow. That’s where the engineers and our staff in Indy come into play because they’re able to watch his on-board in real time and replay his on board to figure out what he’s doing to get the most of out of his car in the video game.

“It gets the creative juices flowing again. It’s still very different from real life, but I think we’re going to be able to start the season a little more fresh than we would have without this.”

Chris Graythen / Getty Images