Twenty years after being paralyzed, Sam Schmidt still helping others

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.

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).

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.”