Video: Paralysed IndyCar driver Sam Schmidt races again in hi-tech Corvette

Goodwood: Since the age of five, Sam Schmidt’s ambition was to be an IndyCar champion. And he achieved it, winning at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 1999. A glorious racing career beckoned.

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But months later, on January 6, 2000, Schmidt crashed during a practice lap at the Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, severely injuring his spinal cord.

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Doctors told him he would likely be on a ventilator for the rest of his life. He was off the ventilator in six weeks, but was diagnosed as a quadriplegic – paralysed from the neck down.

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“It was my passion my entire life and then this happens and it kind of turns things upside down,” Schmidt told Reuters.

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While the prospect of him racing again was gone, Schmidt founded Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2001. His team, now known as Arrow McLaren SP, has won 12 IndyCar races.

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Still, the urge to race prompted Schmidt to embark on an exciting proposition: building a race car that he could drive despite his disability.

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Beginning in 2013 and working with engineers from tech company Arrow Electronics, the result is the SAM Car – SAM standing for “semi-autonomous mobility”.

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“Arrow came along with this idea of building a car for somebody that can’t use their arms and legs. And it was an amazing experience,” Schmidt said.

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“What I didn’t anticipate was this overwhelming feeling of normalcy because I was in control. And literally to that point in my life, there was really not a lot that I controlled. I needed help for everything. So the fact that I’m steering it, I’m using the brake and the gas and going as fast as I want is exhilarating. So it’s fantastic.” ‘Sky’s the limit!’

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On July 8 the latest version of the SAM Car – a modified a V8 Chevrolet Corvette C8 Stingray – took to the legendary racecourse at Goodwood in southern England, driven by Schmidt himself.

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He steers via a racing hat and sunglasses fitted with infrared sensors, which are motion-tracked by infrared cameras mounted on the dashboard to detect his head movements.

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To accelerate and brake Schmidt uses his breath, inhaling and exhaling through a “sip-and-puff” pressure sensor.

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While Schmidt has a co-driver alongside him with their hands hovering over the wheel to take control in an emergency, he has managed to navigate a number of race tracks in the United States and, now the Goodwood course as part of its annual Festival of Speed motoring event. Other milestones include going over 200 miles-per-hour, and driving his wife on a date.

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Arrow engineers recently built an exoskeleton suit, further giving him an independence once thought lost forever.

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“In the last few months I wore (it) my to daughter’s wedding. So, by far the best day in 21 years,” Schmidt said, adding that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when he danced with his newlywed daughter.

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The tech that he and Arrow are pioneering could have a wider impact on helping people with disabilities, he added.

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“This technology could be transferred to industrial purposes to get people back to work. You can drive a harvester, you can drive a train, you could drive a forklift or a crane.” As for what his future holds, Schmidt is aiming high.

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“The sky’s the limit… I hear they’re selling tickets to the space station, maybe that’s it!”

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