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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IndyCar’s ‘Phoenix’ flying into 2023 season: Romain Grosjean enjoying the pilot’s life

IndyCar Romain Grosjean pilot
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – The IndyCar driver known as “The Phoenix” already has taken flight before the 2023 season, and newly licensed pilot Romain Grosjean also got a head start on the opener.

Fulfilling a dream several years in the making, the Andretti Autosport plunged into aviation training over the offseason. Since beginning with online studying last August, Grosjean quickly progressed to earning his licenses for multiengine planes and instrument ratings while completing 115 hours of flight time.

He has landed twice at Albert Whitted Airport, whose primary runway also doubles as the front straightaway on the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg street course.

“Just to land on the start-finish line, that was pretty cool,” Grosjean said during IndyCar Preseason Content Days ahead of the Feb. 2-3 test at The Thermal Club. “The air traffic control guy was like, “Yeah, left on Acre Five, turn, and then back. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the last corner of the racetrack, I’ll take it and go back to the pit lane. He was like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s true.’ So it was quite funny.”

Grosjean, 36, said he had wanted to become a pilot since he was 30 but was discouraged by Europe’s complicated and time-consuming licensing process (“to go to ground school twice a week, and with our life, it’s impossible”). He was inspired again last year by (now former) teammate Alexander Rossi, who flew to some 2022 races after earning his license a couple of years ago.

“I thought that was pretty cool,” said Grosjean, who had grown “bored of waiting in the airports.”

He plans to fly to nearly all the races this year (“if the weather is good enough, I’ll be flying”) and jokes about being “commercial by the end of the year, so then I can take Roger (Penske). Roger can pay me to fly him around to races if things go bad with racing.”

Grosjean’s social media has been filled with posts about his new hobby, which afforded him the opportunity recently to take his wife to Key West for lunch from their home in the Miami area.

The trip took 37 minutes there and 41 minutes on return and highlighted why Grosjean loves flying: “Freedom. Freedom to go anywhere you want, anytime you want. It’s the beauty of it. We can go to the Bahamas for a day if we want to. Anywhere. I think that’s just great to know that you can do whatever you want.”

It’s reminiscent of the cross-country trip across the Midwest in an RV that Grosjean took with his family during the summer of his 2021 rookie season.

“There’s one thing that I told my kids, and I told my friend about America, and for me, that’s the biggest difference between Europe and here, is here everything is possible,” said Grosjean (whose “Phoenix” nickname was derived from a brush with death in his final Formula One start). “If you have the wish, if you give yourself the possibility of doing it, everything is possible. It is different in Europe. Much more boundaries on the way. Much more steps that you need to do in a certain order. But if you want to be extraordinary (in the United States), if you want to do something different, you don’t need to do those steps because you can work through.

“Yeah, I like doing things, and when I do them, I like doing them well. But here I think just the opportunity of driving the RV, flying planes, for my kids to do whatever they want to do, we love that here. Yeah, it’s been the best discovery for us.”

The Swiss-born Frenchman already has flown himself to a race this year, jetting up the Florida coast for his Rolex 24 at Daytona debut last month. It was his debut as a Lamborghini factory driver, and his new deal will continue with the Twelve Hours of Sebring and possibly the Petit Le Mans while he also helps develop the automaker’s new hybrid prototype (LMDh) for next year.

Grosjean finished a disappointing 13th in the 2022 points standings with one podium for Andretti in his first full IndyCar season. The team showed improvement at Thermal, and Grosjean (who was fourth fastest on Day 1) said IndyCar will remain his priority in 2024.

But he hopes the IndyCar schedule will afford racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship endurance races and perhaps his longest plane flight yet — a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

“I’ll keep my fingers crossed like that we get the weekend off from IndyCar,” said Grosjean, noting that 10 IndyCar drivers were in the Rolex 24. “I think it would make a lot of sense. I think for both series it’s amazing. If we can get Le Mans, it’s also amazing because it’s just cool.

“I remember Mario flying across the Atlantic doing Monaco and the Indy 500, and those guys, they were racing everywhere, Formula 3, Formula 2, Formula 1. They were doing the races in opening of the Formula 1 race, and I think that’s very cool for us. So yeah, looking forward to the project. There’s going to be a lot of development coming on. By the time we finish the IndyCar season, the LMDh will be here in the States, and that’s when I’m going to spend a lot of time on it.”