A crash in 2000 left Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt paralysed. now technology has given him the opportunity to race again in a converted supercar and Adam Hay-Nicholls gets an exclusive – and incredible – test drive.
Sam Schmidt was on the verge of becoming an IndyCar title contender before he crashed his Treadway Racing G-Force in January 2000, testing at the Walt Disney World Speedway near Orlando in the run up to the IRL season opener. The 200mph impact broke the then-35-year-old’s back and left him quadriplegic, paralysed from the neck down. It hasn’t stopped him from driving supercars. The American has helped create a one-of-a-kind McLaren 720S which he can steer with his head and accelerate and brake with his breath. And he let me have a go.
From the outside the 720S Spider looks normal – well, normal for a 212mph McLaren – and behind the seats is a standard-issue 4.0 twin-turbo V8 developing 710bhp. But Arrow Electronics – a Colorado-based Fortune 500 company – have fitted some optional extras.
Inside is a steering wheel on the left and pedals, because a co-driver is required just in case something goes wrong. I join Sam as his co-driver for a few laps of the circuit before he hands his seat over to me (I only had to grab the wheel to avoid the grass a couple of times!). On Schmidt’s side, there are no obvious controls and I take my place on the right-hand-side. Ahead of me, on the dashboard, are three infra-red cameras. I don a helmet peppered with 11 dots. These are reflective markers and they work the same way as CGI, where green-screen actors wear bodysuits with ping pong balls attached. The McLaren’s cameras measure the angle of reflection. To set it up, an engineer waves a ‘calibration wand’ in front of my face. It’s looks like a window-washing squeegee.
My helmet is, in effect, the steering wheel. When I move my head a couple of inches to the left and right the wheels move accordingly. The helmet contains a plastic pipe, like a straw, which is inserted into the mouth. The car is in neutral. When I blow into the tube, the engine revs. The straw has a negative and positive sensor which, via software, adjusts the pedal angles. To brake, you suck.
My co-driver engages gear and I carefully exhale, being mindful to look dead ahead up the track to Goodwood’s first corner and not be distracted by anything peripheral. Off we go.
Once you’ve blown into the tube and are accelerating you bite the end of it to maintain speed. Braking is difficult to gauge and requires a bit of practice, as one tends to pull up rather abruptly with the slightest inhalation. The steering seems to have a half-second delay, so you need to factor that in when taking the turns. The line of sight that one uses is not dissimilar to that which a racing driver would take normally, but you can’t see beyond to the next corner in the same way.
My first couple of laps are pretty good, on the straight bits at least, hitting around 80mph in places. However, excess saliva is a problem; the tube gets full of spit and I’m struggling to apply power. By the end of this short session, my cheeks are red from blowing so hard. It’s like I’ve inflated a dozen air mattresses.
Arrow Electronics’ Joe Verrengia, director of the SAM (Semi-Autonomous Mobility) project, describes Schmidt as “an astronaut for the disabled community.”
“The desire to get out of the wheelchair and push the limits has been there since day one,” says Schmidt, 57, back in the pits. At the end of 1999, Sam was on a high. He was a rising star in the Indy Racing League, and won his first race late that season in Las Vegas after 27 goes. He also achieved two second-places and a third. “I was one of the favourites to win the title in 2000,” he tells me. “I’d just won my first race. I had a six-month-old and a two-year-old, and a beautiful wife of seven years. Everything was cruising along splendidly. Then, at a pre-season test in Florida, I hit the wall at 200mph and blew apart my C3 and C4 vertebrae. I couldn’t breathe for well over four minutes. Fortunately, the safety crew got me resuscitated and into a helicopter. My wife was told if I made it through the night I’d be on a ventilator and in bed for the rest of my life, which might be three to five years.”
The accident turned the Schmidt family’s lives upside down, but Sam defied the grim prognosis. His unswervingly supportive wife Sheila found an “aggressive” rehabilitation programme in St Louis, where his neck was stabilized and he was weaned off the ventilator. He had professional athlete insurance. After six months, he was able to leave hospital and continue his rehabilitation at home in Nevada. “I quickly came to the realisation that I had it pretty good,” says Sam.
In September 2000, he visited the Brickyard to watch its inaugural Formula One grand prix and meet fellow quadriplegic Sir Frank Williams. “His main message was: Focus on your purpose in life and don’t give up until you get it. Frank was helpful.”
The following year, Schmidt established his own racing team which would go on to score seven Indy Lights championships and win ten IndyCar Series races so far. He’s yet to reach his goal of winning the Indy 500, but the team – now christened Arrow McLaren SP (he’s the ‘S’) – finished second this year. His team also secured pole position at Indianapolis in 2011, which Sam describes as “like crack – you want more.”
His energy is inexhaustible and his optimism inspiring. “If you sit around and do nothing you’ll get nothing in return. If you find your passion, if you have the right attitude and you’re willing to put the time in, whether that’s exercise or studying or whatever it takes to achieve your goal, you can get there.”
Running a multi-million-dollar business seems all the more incredible when one learns it takes Schmidt three to four hours just to emerge from bed, get ablouted and breakfasted and out the door every morning with the aid of his full-time nurse. He takes over 100 commercial flights a year, with the inability to move any of his limbs. He needs to be craned from his wheelchair into any mode of transportation, including the McLaren – hence why he’s got the Spider with its retractable hard-top.
Sam’s determination was, he says, always there. “I don’t think you get to the top levels of motorsport without having perseverance and determination. My last name wasn’t Foyt or Unser or something. I had to find how to get there, to the Indy 500. That was my life’s goal. I got there just through sheer grit. This [challenge] is very much the same thing, although solving spinal cord injury is something that’s going to take a lot of time, energy and money, resources, and we’re still working on it. We’ve made more progress in the last five years than the previous 20. It can be frustrating because it is so slow. But projects like this [SAM car] really re-inspire me as far as the capabilities of technology and what you can accomplish if you get the right team.”
The SAM project started nine years ago, and was christened with the acronym before Sam Schmidt was involved. Arrow Electronics launched it as a Corporate Social Responsibility not-for-profit programme to innovate technological benefits for disabled people. You don’t even have to be a petrolhead to acknowledge that driving equals freedom. Joe Verrengia, who is responsible for Arrow’s CSR programmes, heard about Schmidt and sent him a text to see if he’d like to be involved – to be his astronaut. The driver texted back: ‘Don’t know you guys, but if you build it I’ll drive it.”
The McLaren is the second SAM car, having recently replaced a Corvette which had been developed over many years. Originally, Schmidt had a system where the car would accelerate when he put pressure on his headrest. To brake, he would bite. He started with wide ovals where you only need to turn left. Fourteen-turn road courses came later. Given Sam’s head has become a joystick of sorts, it begs the question; what happens if he sneezes? This was news to me – quadriplegics cannot sneeze.
Of course, he’d rather still be an able-bodied racing driver than a team owner and quadriplegic pioneer. “Today I’d probably be racing some very nice vintage race cars”, he says, looking around the Goodwood paddock. “You never know where life is going to take you, but it’s been a great experience being a team owner, extremely challenging, but like anything else it’s about putting the right people in the right places and letting them do their job.”
“In some ways,” he says of this Arrow project, “it’s better than racing because this is driving with a purpose. This technology can help people with their daily living. I’d love to see it help people get back to work. Maybe a farmer driving his harvester or a forklift or something. Because a lot of times that’s all people are asking for, the ability to put food on the table, support their family, be the breadwinner.”
Verrengia adds that the technology is not for sale, “but I would give it to you for free if you have an application that’s interesting.”
Schmidt is not restricted to closed circuits. The state of Nevada has given him a unique driving licence which allows him to drive on the public roads. He doesn’t need to wear a helmet either, as Arrow have fitted reflective dots to a set of Oakley sunglasses which take care of the steering just the same.
The McLaren is in a constant state of development and its three NaturalPoint 13W Prime wide-angle IR cameras are soon to be replaced with a more advanced Artificial Intelligence camera which will be more precise and offer greater security through facial recognition – although if someone got in this car to steal it they’d probably find the controls unfathomable anyway.
The constant R&D reminds Schmidt of how things used to be when he was pushing for better laptimes. “They keep advancing the car and I keep showing up to try and push it forward. It’s a great collaborative effort and it feels like I’m a professional driver again, because I give my input and someone else has to find the money to make it happen.”
Driving his SAM car up the hill at the Goodwood Festival of Speed is just one of many bucket list items Schmidt has ticked off since his accident 22 years ago. “I’ve controlled a sail boat with my chin, swum with sharks, flown a hot air balloon, I’ve jumped out of an airplane with my kids; me and my kids try and do some challenge together once a year. They’ve had plenty of rides in the car. We try to push the limits as much as we can.”
Does he get as much of a thrill driving the way he does now as he did with his hands and feet? “You know,” Sam says, “I think it’s still a thrill.”
[BOX-OUT ON DISABLED RACING INITIATIVES IN THE UK]
Being disabled needn’t spell the end of someone’s racing dreams. Team BRIT is an all—disabled racing team with designs on the Le Mans 24 Hours. Formed in 2015, it provides a motorsport ladder for those with physical and psychological challenges to compete on equal terms. It’s also developed state-of-the-art hand control technology, enabling steering, brakes, clutch, throttle and gears to be controlled using hands alone.
This year, Team BRIT has eight disabled drivers in the UK across four cars competing in the British GT Championship, the British Endurance Championship and Britcar Trophy. These drivers have a range of disabilities, including British GT’s Aaron Morgan, 32, who is paraplegic and Bobby Trundley, 23, who suffers from autism. Team BRIT also runs a sim racing arm for the disabled.
Motorsport UK will grant race licences to disabled drivers, and the Loughborough Car Club offers an annual disabled driver scholarship to the candidate with the greatest potential and commitment to long-term competition. The prize is a season of AutoSolo and Autotest events in a Nissan Micra.
Meanwhile, Mission Motorsport is a forces charity which enables wounded, injured or sick serving and veteran UK military personnel to “race, retrain and recover.”