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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, September 12, 2018 1:00 am

Racing still vital to Schmidt after paralysis

JENNA FRYER | Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. – The stranger had tears in his eyes as he pushed through a crowd to reach Sam Schmidt in his wheelchair.

Schmidt was watching his team tune up a pair of engines, the roar was relentless and the man had to lean in close and shout in Schmidt's ear to be heard. Thank you, the man said over and over, never expanding upon his gratitude. He tried to shake Schmidt's hand, awkwardly just patted it, thanked him again and backed away.

“Happens about 10 times a weekend,” Schmidt said. “You never know what the connection is.”

Schmidt is a quadriplegic from an injury suffered when he crashed an Indy car in 2000. He'd given up racing once before, around the age of 11, when his father suffered partial paralysis in an off-road crash. Schmidt was racing motocross at the time and stepped away as his father regained use of everything but his right arm.

However, Schmidt was racing again as a teenager, and even after his own accident, the thrill of the competition was just too much to give up. Schmidt became a team owner and life, never easy, has been particularly rough for the organization the past seven years.

Dan Wheldon was killed driving a Schmidt car in 2011. James Hinchcliffe nearly bled to death in a Schmidt car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2015 when a broken part severed an artery. Now Robert Wickens is hospitalized in Indianapolis with a spinal cord injury. The severity of the injury is unknown – Wickens broke numerous bones including one in his neck and one in his spine – and it may be months before the Canadian knows what kind of recovery he's facing.

It's enough heartbreak to make anyone give up the sport that Schmidt calls “particularly unforgiving.”

Yet he has no interest in quitting.

“It's in my blood, it's in my chemistry. I want to compete, even if I can't be a driver,” Schmidt said.

What Schmidt has been able to see and understand is that all the tragedies have helped thousands of others with their own struggles. Schmidt works closely with Arrow Electronics, the sponsor of Hinchcliffe's IndyCar team, and in 2013 began developing a car that could be safely driven by a paralyzed driver via head movements.

The Semi-Autonomous Motorcar is known as SAM, and in 2014 Schmidt drove it at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he hit 97 mph.

Schmidt can sound almost clinical in discussing the hurdles, for him and for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Hinchcliffe didn't qualify for this year's Indianapolis 500 and Schmidt saw team members crying on pit lane.

“We didn't make the Indy 500 this year and it was devastating. Then you remember back to 2015 when Hinch almost lost his life and you remember there are worse things,” Schmidt said. “Robbie's situation, my situation, Hinch's situation – you are given a choice. You can give up and sit on the couch and watch ESPN for the rest of your life and say, 'To hell with it,' or you can do everything possible to rehabilitate as far as you can rehabilitate.”