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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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NHRA Phoenix winners: Steve Torrence, Tommy Johnson Jr., Erica Enders

Photos and videos courtesy NHRA
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Missing the season-opening race two weeks ago didn’t have much impact upon two-time defending NHRA Top Fuel champ Steve Torrence, as he roared to victory in Sunday’s finals of the NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix.

“First round I had a little bit of the jitters,” Torrence said after the 37th win of his Top Fuel career, including 29 since the start of the 2017 season. “We missed [the season opener in Pomona, California] so you came here and this is the first round of the first race of the season for us and I was a little bit nervous to go up there.

“We’re just going to see how the races go and what the weather throws at us. I think that we’ve always had a good hot weather tune-up. We’re just going to try to develop cool track conditions. We’re easing up to it. We’ll just see how it goes and that’s something that we really need to try to put our thumb on.”

Torrence had a final round effort of 3.679 seconds at 321.27 mph to defeat runner-up Doug Kalitta. It was Torrence’s second career win at Phoenix. Torrence and his Capco Contractors dragster got to the final round after defeating, in order, Jim Maroney, Shawn Langdon and Steve’s father, Billy Torrence [in the semifinals].

In Funny Car, Tommy Johnson Jr. [3.883 seconds at 326.40 mph] earned his 18th career win in the class in what was an all-Don Schumacher Racing final round, defeating teammate Jack Beckman, who won the season-opening race at Pomona.

“We had a good car,” said Johnson, whose last Phoenix win came back in 2006. “The last qualifying run showed us that we have a solid car. Coming up here today, we had a lot of confidence. We went out first round and laid down a solid number.

“We weren’t low (elapsed time) but we were close. We came out second round and sat low ET so we knew we had a solid car. As a driver, going into each round knowing you have a car that’s going to perform makes your job a little easier. It gives you a little less stress. The guys did a great job. Even in Pomona we a had a good car, just dropped a cylinder second round and event had a little issue with that in qualifying here.”

In Pro Stock, three-time and defending champion Erica Enders won for the 26th time of her career in the class with a 6.531-second, 210.44 mph over Bo Butner.

“I’d have to say today was excellent,” Enders said. “Our objective coming in was to just get my car as happy as possible. We tested in Tucson on Wednesday, so coming in we were definitely optimistic and finally got our act together for that one fun on Saturday.

“The guys gave me a tremendous race car today. Very consistent, very fast and we just crushed the competition today and it was really fun.”

The third race of the 24-race NHRA national event schedule are one of the biggest races of the season, the Gatornationals, March 12-15 in Gainesville, Florida.

Here are the results from Sunday’s race:

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Billy Torrence; 4. Antron Brown; 5. Brittany Force; 6. Leah Pruett; 7. Shawn Langdon; 8. Justin Ashley; 9. Terry McMillen; 10. Clay Millican; 11. Scott Palmer; 12. Jim Maroney; 13. Doug Foley; 14. Terry Totten; 15. Austin Prock; 16. Shawn Reed.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 2. Jack Beckman; 3. Ron Capps; 4. John Force; 5. Tim Wilkerson; 6. Bob Tasca III; 7. Jeff Diehl; 8. Jim Campbell; 9. Paul Lee; 10. Blake Alexander; 11. Alexis DeJoria; 12. Cruz Pedregon; 13. J.R. Todd; 14. Robert Hight; 15. Terry Haddock; 16. Matt Hagan.

PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders; 2. Bo Butner; 3. Jason Line; 4. Alex Laughlin; 5. Kenny Delco; 6. Jeg Coughlin; 7. Cristian Cuadra; 8. Chris McGaha; 9. Matt Hartford; 10. Fernando Cuadra Jr.; 11. Marty Robertson; 12. Aaron Stanfield; 13. Val Smeland; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Greg Anderson; 16. Deric Kramer.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence, 3.679 seconds, 321.27 mph def. Doug Kalitta, 4.052 seconds, 218.90 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Tommy Johnson Jr., Dodge Charger, 3.883, 326.40 def. Jack Beckman, Charger, 6.156, 119.31.

PRO STOCK: Erica Enders, Chevy Camaro, 6.531, 210.44 def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.606, 209.33.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Doug Kalitta, 3.711, 330.07 def. Shawn Reed, Foul – Red Light; Shawn Langdon, 3.717, 321.65 def. Clay Millican, 3.750, 321.42; Justin Ashley, 3.717, 312.21 def. Scott Palmer, 3.843, 288.21; Brittany Force, 3.643, 337.92 def. Terry Totten, 8.635, 84.50; Leah Pruett, 3.654, 331.12 def. Doug Foley, 5.328, 127.81; Steve Torrence, 3.717, 325.69 def. Jim Maroney, 4.436, 190.35; Antron Brown, 3.729, 326.95 def. Terry McMillen, Foul – Red Light; Billy Torrence, 3.683, 322.73 def. Austin Prock, 9.008, 78.60; QUARTERFINALS — Brown, 3.721, 326.87 def. Ashley, 10.031, 78.07; S. Torrence, 4.570, 203.31 def. Langdon, 5.170, 216.72; Kalitta, 3.695, 325.69 def. Force, 3.685, 334.15; B. Torrence, 3.703, 328.78 def. Pruett, 3.688, 324.20; SEMIFINALS — S. Torrence, 3.698, 329.58 def. B. Torrence, 3.699, 329.91; Kalitta, 3.672, 330.55 def. Brown, 4.360, 183.74; FINAL — S. Torrence, 3.679, 321.27 def. Kalitta, 4.052, 218.90.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 4.051, 318.02 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 6.254, 109.34; Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.591, 248.16 def. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 7.416, 90.63; John Force, Camaro, 3.848, 335.90 def. Terry Haddock, Ford Mustang, 7.692, 86.52; Jeff Diehl, Toyota Camry, No Time def. Matt Hagan, Charger, DQ-CCL; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.878, 325.85 def. Paul Lee, Charger, 3.898, 320.05; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.211, 318.99 def. Blake Alexander, Mustang, 5.172, 151.36; Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.979, 286.25 def. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 6.045, 111.71; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.905, 329.02 def. J.R. Todd, Camry, 6.383, 103.46; QUARTERFINALS — Beckman, 3.895, 329.42 def. Campbell, 8.959, 70.61; Force, 3.894, 332.43 def. Wilkerson, Foul – Red Light; Johnson Jr., 3.864, 323.74 def. Tasca III, Foul – Red Light; Capps, 4.184, 232.19 def. Diehl, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Beckman, 3.882, 329.91 def. Force, 3.917, 326.63; Johnson Jr., 3.871, 319.98 def. Capps, 3.864, 328.06; FINAL — Johnson Jr., 3.883, 326.40 def. Beckman, 6.156, 119.31.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Alex Laughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.548, 209.85 def. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.586, 208.68; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.583, 209.46 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 15.609, 67.56; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.649, 186.28 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 30.055, 23.82; Bo Butner, Camaro, 10.108, 78.96 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.601, 208.65 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 10.724, 93.79; Cristian Cuadra, Ford Mustang, 6.633, 208.10 def. Aaron Stanfield, Camaro, 7.162, 145.93; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.532, 210.37 def. Fernando Cuadra Jr., Mustang, 6.611, 207.91; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.535, 210.11 def. Marty Robertson, Mustang, 6.634, 206.67; QUARTERFINALS — Line, 6.581, 210.01 def. C. Cuadra, 14.134, 51.15; Butner, 6.863, 167.32 def. Delco, Foul – Red Light; Laughlin, 6.546, 210.44 def. Coughlin, 6.810, 175.34; Enders, 6.526, 211.00 def. McGaha, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Butner, 7.262, 147.44 def. Laughlin, Broke; Enders, 6.555, 210.28 def. Line, 6.582, 209.33; FINAL — Enders, 6.531, 210.44 def. Butner, 6.606, 209.33.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Doug Kalitta, 212; 2. Brittany Force, 153; 3. Leah Pruett, 137; 4. Austin Prock, 131; 5. Steve Torrence, 121; 6. Justin Ashley, 108; 7. Antron Brown, 103; 8. Shawn Langdon, 91; 9. Clay Millican, 85; 10. Shawn Reed, 83.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Jack Beckman, 220; 2. Tommy Johnson Jr., 175; 3. John Force, 173; 4. Ron Capps, 128; 5. Matt Hagan, 124; 6. Tim Wilkerson, 107; 7. Robert Hight, 100; 8. Alexis DeJoria, 99; 9. Bob Tasca III, 87; 10. (tie) Paul Lee, 65; J.R. Todd, 65.

PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders, 203; 2. Jeg Coughlin, 197; 3. Jason Line, 168; 4. Kenny Delco, 132; 5. Bo Butner, 131; 6. Chris McGaha, 106; 7. Alex Laughlin, 104; 8. Matt Hartford, 85; 9. (tie) Cristian Cuadra, 82; Fernando Cuadra Jr., 82.

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