Sam Schmidt: An Enduring Legacy

With all of the hoopla that constantly surrounds Danicamania and the dance moves of Helio Castroneves, there is a powerful story within the Izod IndyCar Series that the mainstream press tends to overlook – the story of Sam Schmidt. All of us in the IndyCar community know his story very well, but it tends to get lost among the glitzy stories that the mainstream media covers – whenever they decide to do a story about IndyCar. It’s a shame.

His is a remarkable story of adversity, perseverance, strong faith and the ultimate example of a positive attitude. Had Sam Schmidt been a pro-football player, chances are there would already be a movie out about his extraordinary life. Instead, he continues living each and every day of his life in relative obscurity.

Sam Schmidt fell in love with racing at the age of five and competed in motorcross events. His father raced, but was in a bad crash in 1974 that caused paralysis in one of his arms. From that point on, young Sam was encouraged to forget about racing and to concentrate on more traditional sports such as football and baseball. Sam was a good student and went on to graduate from Pepperdine University with a degree in Business Administration as well as a Masters degree in International Finance. He took a job with a healthcare company and he became a hospital administrator at the age of twenty-four. With his business acumen came his inbred entrepreneurial skills. He left the healthcare industry when he bought his fathers auto parts business in 1989 and turned it into a rousing success.

Having never gotten over the racing bug that had been dormant since his father’s accident, Sam began competing in SCCA events at the age of twenty-eight. His dream had always been to race in the Indianapolis 500. In 1995 at the age of thirty-one, Schmidt began racing professionally – a very advanced age for a racer to be starting a career. He was third in points for the Hooters Pro Cup series and was named Rookie of the Year.

Fate would lend a hand at this point. Tony George had announced in March of 1994 that he would be starting a new oval-based series designed to give young, aspiring American racers a clear path to race in the Indy 500. This was the perfect opportunity for Sam to achieve his dream. In what would later turn out to be a strange twist of fate, Sam Schmidt had the distinction of winning the first-ever race at the newly constructed Walt Disney World Speedway – in 1996, in a US F2000 race that served as a support race to the inaugural Indy Racing League event.

Schmidt moved up to IndyCars in 1997 with Blue Print Racing. He finished tenth at Phoenix, while his Blue Print teammate Jim Guthrie was a surprise winner. In his first Indy 500 in 1997, Schmidt qualified a respectable twenty-third but has the dubious distinction of being one of the very few people to finish thirty-fourth in the Indianapolis 500. A very unreliable Oldsmobile engine that put him out of the race on lap one, combined with a quirk in the qualifying rules that year placed him in that unique club.

He came back the following year as teammate to Scott Harrington with LP Racing carrying the now-familiar #99. He fared better as he qualified an impressive sixth but an accident on lap 48 forced Schmidt to settle for twenty-sixth and finished fourteenth in points for the season.

1999 was the breakout season for #99. He had landed a plum ride with Treadway Racing, who was a big name in those early IRL days. Although he had another disappointing day at Indy, where he finished thirtieth after starting seventh – he won his first pole and his first race later that season at Las Vegas. He crashed in the season finale at Texas, causing foot injuries and forcing him to be content with fifth in the 1999 standings.

The future looked bright for Sam Schmidt. Although he had gotten a late start at following his passion, he was posting the results to back up the potential he had shown earlier. The first season of the new millennium couldn’t get here fast enough for Treadway Racing and their new star in the making.

The morning of January 6, 2000 dawned brightly in Orlando, FL. Sam Schmidt and Treadway Racing were testing at Walt Disney World Speedway in preparation for the season opener later that month. The track has a tricky configuration. It is shaped like Pocono with more shallow double-apex turns that were known to give drivers troubles. Sam spun while coming out of turn two and hit the concrete retaining wall hard. This was in the days before the SAFER barrier had been invented. The resulting injuries rendered the future star a quadriplegic.

Sam was airlifted to a nearby hospital and remained on a ventilator for five weeks. Not only was a promising career yanked away from him, he was to be confined to a wheel chair and was lucky to be alive. He knew it, too.

Even as his slow recovery progressed in the ensuing months, Sam began reassessing his priorities. As he was exposed to several other spinal-chord patients, he realized that most had not been blessed with what he had – solid faith, a loving family…and excellent insurance. While most would be consumed with questions of fate and faith, Sam used his faith as the foundation on which to build a whole new career. Combined with a strong faith and unyielding support from his family, Sam Schmidt used his adversity as the motivation to launch the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation within just fourteen months of his accident.

Sam freely admits that part of his motivation in starting his foundation is self-serving. He is determined to walk again and the best way to achieve that is to accelerate finding a cure for paralysis through his foundation. But his foundation does so much more to help others that have found themselves in his situation without the support that surrounded Sam.

Of course, this is not Sam’s only career these days. While others may have cursed the sport that placed them in a wheelchair, Sam is still very involved in racing. Sam Schmidt Motorsports is the premier team in the Firestone Indy Lights Series. Sam is the Roger Penske of Indy Lights.

Sam Schmidt Motorsports was formed in 2001, just one year after his accident. It was originally an IndyCar effort fielding drivers such as Davey Hamilton, Jaques Lazier, Alex Barron and Greg Ray. When the Infiniti Pro Series (now Indy Lights) was formed in 2002, Sam Schmidt Motorsports began to concentrate on the Pro series as the power teams began to migrate full-time into the IRL from CART, thereby driving up the cost of doing business dramatically.

Sam has found the Firestone Indy Lights series to be profitable – an oddity in today’s racing world. He runs several cars and has won the championship three times; in 2004 with Thiago Medeiros, 2006 with Jay Howard and 2007 with Alex Lloyd. He still fields a car for the Indianapolis 500 almost every year. This past season, Sam ran five cars in the Firestone Indy Lights series, two of them finished second and third in the championship while another finished in the top ten. He also ran Alex Lloyd in the Indianapolis 500 this past year in conjunction with Chip Ganassi Racing.

But with the success of Sam Schmidt Motorsports and the drive behind the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, I am still most impressed by Sam’s general day-to-day attitude. In an era where so many are wanting to play the role of victim – Sam Schmidt goes on about the business of actively leading his foundation and running his race team. Although he admits it’s difficult sometimes, he won’t allow himself to feel sorry for himself. Instead he prefers to dwell on the blessings in his life.

Before his accident, Sam Schmidt served as a role model for those who were driven to follow their passion and dreams. He excelled in school, then in business. But he chose a path that he felt he was destined for. After his accident, he discovered what his destiny truly was – to be the driving force behind finding a cure for paralysis while helping others deal with the same affliction he faces. Other than one segment on ABC leading into the Indy 500 a couple of years back, Sam’s story goes relatively unnoticed. It’s a shame that more news outlets focus more on the celebrity side of IndyCar racing while ignoring Sam’s Schmidt’s story. It’s quite a remarkable legacy he is building.

George Phillips

Click here to go to the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation.

To purchase the Sam Schmidt 2010 IndyCar calendar to benefit his foundation, click here.


8 Responses to “Sam Schmidt: An Enduring Legacy”

  1. […] Phillips of the Oilpressure blog wrote an excellent piece on Indy Lights team owner Sam Schmidt– the story was posted early this morning.  If you haven’t already read it, make sure […]

  2. An inspirational story, to be sure. Great write-up, George, and here’s hoping that your article leads to evan more sales of Sam’s calendar.

    My own two cents on the Sam Schmidt story: I was crewing on an SCCA Formula Ford at the time of Sam’s accident, and that day we were towing from Virginia to Sebring for the first National of the year. It occurred to me around about Daytona that we’d be passing through Orlando in the middle of the afternoon and that the IRL guys were testing there that day. I made sure to roll down the windows of the truck, so that I could hear the cars testing at The Mickyard, since the track’s only a half-mile or so off the interstate. I was puzzled at the silence as we drove by, but just figured that the wind must have been carrying the sound toward the west or something. I was extremely saddened to hear the next day down at Sebring that the reason for the quiet was the stoppage due to Sam’s accident. I’d followed him from his F2000 days and into his ride in IndyCar, and though I knew that he was no Mears or Unser that he was a solid driver, well deserving of his spot in the major leagues. It’s been great to watch his Lights team build up over the years and achieve their place of prominence in the feeder series system. They play an important role in the sport, and the fact that they’re run by such a good, savvy and tenacious guy like Sam makes it all the sweeter.

  3. As usual, superb work.

    • Agreed. Some of your best work yet.

      btw, George — can you put a filler post in between this and my article on Monday, please? Maybe something irreverent or off-topic to serve as a buffer. Because it will simply be too jarring for your readers to go from a well-written, entirely thoughtful Sam Schmidt article straight into an asinine Willy T. Ribbs Report recapping the minutae of my weekend. They’ll get literary whiplash, and that would be cruelity of some kind, I’d think. Thanks, sport.

  4. uh, george…sorry to go off-topic, but you started it…just thought I should remind you that the Titans play the Colts today. I know you’re drinking the Vince Resurrection Kool-Aid right now, but Indy will bring some reality to Tennesee’s storybook six weeks.

    …but good stuff on Schmidt.

    • oilpressure Says:

      Actually…It is Roy Hobbson that is drinking the Kool-Aid (or smoking something) on the Colts going undefeated. In hopes of giving himself something to root for in today’s game, he has come up with some desperation bet involving our respective blog sites.

      If the Titans win, I get to take over his “Silent Pagoda” site for a day. If the Colts win, I have to relinquish control of this site to his evil genius for a day.

      I’m not worried.

  5. Sam is a great role model for those young racers who also have to live in a wheelchair. Sadly, there are manyyoungsters immitating their favorite racers on the highways .. some of those paralyzed victims are just not as well known! Patronization goes a long way in America in a sport where peril and risk are just a part of the game! Many of the young drivers today should get to know Sam because it might be them in the wheelchair trying to make the best of what is left behind! Cody Unser also is making great progress because she has the heart of a champion!

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