Scientist envisions electronic solution to damaged nervous systems

ST. PETERSBURG – Sam Schmidt was a rising star in the Indy Racing League in the late 1990s. He was a fun guy who once dyed his hair black and grew Elvis “chops” before a race on his home track at Las Vegas. He had an MBA in international finance from Pepperdine, so he was well-spoken.

He was quick-witted and personable and he had a dream – to win the Indianapolis 500 – and after landing a top ride with Treadway Racing, he was getting closer.

Schmidt is still well-spoken, still quick-witted and personable, and still has his dream of winning Indy, but he no longer drives race cars. That ended Jan. 6, 2000, at Orlando’s Walt Disney Motor Speedway when he slammed into a retaining wall backward at 169 mph.

At this weekend’s Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, he will direct the top team in the Infiniti Pro series from a motorized wheelchair that he steers with head movements. And because his efforts draw attention and funding to spinal cord injury research, he’ll be doing more worthwhile work than he ever did as a driver.

“When you go from spending 30 minutes in the morning shaving, to two hours, you have to find something that really makes it worthwhile,” Schmidt said at Homestead earlier this month.“Racing does it for me.”

Weeks In ICU
Schmidt remembers nothing about the crash – “one of God’s blessings,” he says. His car spun around in Turn 2 and shot backward into a retaining wall, hitting at 169 mph. The car didn’t look that bad, but Schmidt’s head had struck the headrest and the seat, pinching the top of his spinal cord.

He was knocked unconscious and stopped breathing for five minutes. Because it was a league- sanctioned test, the IRL’s full trauma team was on standby and Schmidt believes that saved his life. Yet, there was a difficult time ahead. He underwent surgery to fuse two Vertebrae at Orlando Regional Medical Center and spent 25 days in intensive care and five weeks on a respirator.

Even when the respirator tube was removed, Schmidt had to deal with the reality of being paralyzed from the chest down.

Because his spinal cord was not severed, doctors did not rule out a partial or complete recovery, and that was all the hope Schmidt needed. Bolstered by his Christian faith and the love and support of his family and the racing community, he tore into rehab and resumed an active and productive life. He built Sam Schmidt Motorsports from the ground up and founded the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation.

For those who love him, those in his sport, and those with spinal cord injuries, he became an inspiration.

“He has courage beyond belief,” said former driver Buddy Lazier, who once exhibited remarkable courage himself, coming back from a broken back to win the 1996 Indy 500. “My wife and I were reading the Christmas letter he sends to friends and racing colleagues, and we were saying how so many people in that situation would give up and not follow their dream. To me, he’s like the Frank Williams of America.”

Williams, the successful Formula One team owner, was paralyzed in a highway crash in 1986 and has given Schmidt encouragement. So has Darryl Gwynn, the former NHRA racer who was paralyzed in a crash. Actor Christopher Reeve, who turned his own personal tragedy into a crusade for stem-cell research, was a friend until his death last year.

Schmidt believes there is too much misinformation about stem- cell research in the public domain.

“There are several other forms of stem-cell research that don’t have anything to do with any fertilization techniques or embryos, for that matter,” he said. “No. 1 is adult stem cells, where they take stem cells out of my upper nasal cavity and basically cultivate them and add anti-inhibitors and such and then inject them into the affected area. There are people walking now because of those types of procedures.”

Father Paralyzed, Too
In a cruel coincidence, Schmidt’s father, Marv, was paralyzed while racing a dune buggy when Sam was 10. Doctors said Marv would never talk or walk again, but after years of rehab, he regained his speech and some use of his legs and one arm.

Sam already was racing motocross when his dad got hurt. After his accident, he didn’t race for 15 years. The time was well spent. Besides getting his education, he was working as a hospital administrator by the age of 24.

As Schmidt reached his mid- 20s, though, the lure of racing – of Indy in particular – was too strong to ignore.

“I don’t have any regrets,” Sam said of the risk he eventually took as a racer. “I feel sorry for people who got spinal cord injuries because of a stupid thing – getting hit by a drunk driver or a bad accident or getting a gunshot wound as an innocent bystander. All these kids getting hurt in Iraq – those people need support because they weren’t following their dreams. I was following my dream.

“The biggest thing I continue to battle with is what I continue to put my family through. I have a 5- year-old [Spencer] and a 7-year- old [Savannah].” My wife certainly didn’t sign up for a deal like this, and she’s been the strongest in the group.”

Sheila Schmidt, like her husband, is making the best of a tough situation.

“I think it’s harder on him, but I’m not going to say it’s easy on us,” she said by phone. “Two small kids, you’re supposed to have two sets of hands. And I don’t. It’s not easy, but I think we’re basically the same family. We’ve added a few extended members to be able to function normally, but we’re still the same family we were.”

Eye On Indy
Sam is zeroed in on Indy again. That will come next month. His team has entered the race the past few years and will do so again with Richie Hearn. What’s different this time is Schmidt has sponsorship dollars from Coca-Cola and Meijer that could give him a fighting chance. He’s bringing a straw, just in case there’s a trip to Victory Lane and a jug of milk.

This weekend, it’s the Pro series, the developmental series for Indy cars. Schmidt’s team won the title last year and has three drivers in the top five of this year’s standings – Travis Gregg, Florida State freshman Chris Festa and Brazilian Jaime Camara.

The racing is what keeps Schmidt focused.

“I know it was a fluke thing,” he says of his crash. “It may not ever happen to anybody again. But I know the alternative of not making through that accident would have been worse. I’m still here to watch my kids grow up, and I still get to compete in the Indy 500.

“That’s not to say I don’t every now and then say, `why me?’ But frankly, it’s clear from all the e- mails we get and all the people we visit in the hospital and all the people we help with injuries that we’re helping more people now than I ever could have as an Indy car driver. I have to find some solace in that.”

And he does.

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