This Quadriplegic Indy Racer Is Mobilizing the Disabled

Former race car driver Sam Schmidt is part of an open-source auto project to give himself and other quadriplegics a new kind of mobility and freedom.

On January 6, 2000, Indy Racing League driver Sam Schmidt crashed during a practice lap at the Walt Disney World Speedway in Florida. The accident severely damaged his spiral cord, and when Sam woke up in the hospital, he could feel nothing below his neck. He stayed on a respirator for five months and was diagnosed as a quadriplegic - he would never movie his arms or legs again.

Fourteen years later, and still quadriplegic, Schmidt drove his Corvette C7 Stingray around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in qualifying laps as a competing driver. He reached a top speed of 97 mph. The next week he hit 107 mph. In 2016, at the centennial of the Indianapolis 500, Schmidt reached a top speed of 152 mph. All without using his arms, legs, hands or feet.

How is all of this possible? Three things: technology, persistence and a frankly bananas amount of courage.

Sam's incredible return to the race track is powered by the SAM car, a unique semi-autonomous vehicle built and designed by a team of engineers at Arrow Electronics. More than five years in the making, the SAM car, or Semi Autonomous Motorcar, is an ongoing, open-source design project incorporating multiple technologies. In fact, there are three iterations of the SAM car now. Getting Schmidt back on the track was job one, but the ultimate goal is more ambitious: To provide Sam and other quadriplegics a new kind of mobility and freedom.

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It works like this: The SAM car is a 2014 Corvette Stingray modified so that a qualified quadriplegic driver can operate it safely under racetrack conditions. The driver wears a hat outfitted with eight infrared sensors, which are monitored by four infrared cameras inside the car. Together, the sensors and cameras track head movements in real time, transmitting data to a rotary actuator on the steering wheel. Schmidt steers by moving his head.

The throttle is controlled by a mouthpiece pressure sensor which Schmidt can breathe into. A connected rotary actuator on the gas pedal responds to the amount of air pressure Schmidt generates with his breath. To accelerate, he breathes into the nozzle. To brake, Schmidt "sips" on the mouthpiece, creating negative air pressure.

The technical details underneath these systems are much more complex, of course. They're also totally fascinating. You can check them out for yourself; Arrow maintains a special interactive project page on the SAM car initiative.

Aside from his adventures in the SAM car, Schmidt is a marquee figure in the world of Indy Car Racing. After his accident, he founded Sam Schmidt Motorsports, now Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, which has won multiple championships with various drivers in the IndyCar and Indy Lights series. The SAM car project is now a collaborative venture between Arrow Electronics, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, the nonprofit organization Conquer Paralysis Now and the European company Paravan, a maker of automobile conversions for drivers with severe disabilities.

Schmidt said that the first time he drove the SAM car was a life-changing experience: "It had been a long time since I had felt that sense of freedom, independence and normalcy."

Schmidt has since driven various iterations of the SAM car at demonstrations and high-profile racing events, where he is registered as a competing driver.

"Sam is amazing," said Joe Verrengia, SAM Car project lead for Arrow Electronics. "He is in command of the car."

Development of the SAM car, now in its sixth year, has been an ongoing learning experience for everyone involved. "There were definitely a lot of design challenges, because our engineers were exploring entirely new applications for certain technologies," Verrengia said.

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Last month, Schmidt achieved another unlikely milestone when the state of Nevada issued him a provisional driver's license. The license allows him to drive a new version of the SAM car on public roads under certain conditions. For street driving, the SAM car has been further outfitted with voice command systems for activating turn signals, windshield wipers, horn and everything else you need in a street-legal vehicle.

"I've taken it out a few times and it's been great," Schmidt said. "Especially with the top off driving down the Las Vegas Strip."

Schmidt's license is provisional. So there are certain restrictions, and Schmidt must have a passenger at all times. "But we never really envisioned that I'd be zipping down to the grocery store to do the family shopping in a Corvette Z06," he said. "The goal was always to let the world know what kind of technology is out there for those in my situation and to provide hope for a more enabled future."

Schmidt plans to do a lot more driving around at educational and promotional events in the coming years. "I think you'll definitely see some more street driving in my future, particularly around some iconic American landmarks," he said.

The most difficult part of driving the new street-legal car?

"Trying not to speed," Schmidt said.