In the summer of 2016, Sam competed in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb -- a nearly 5,000-foot ascent through the Rocky Mountains with 156 turns -- while wearing a helmet outfitted with sensors that let him steer with his head.
As a former Indy Racing League driver, Sam made 27 career starts, winning the last race of the 1999 season at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. On January 6, 2000, Sam crashed during a practice lap at the Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, severely injuring his spinal cord. He was diagnosed as a quadriplegic.
Despite his success as a race team owner and business person, nothing compares to being behind the wheel of a racecar. In 2013, Sam agreed to partner with a team of Arrow Electronics engineers determined to make his dream of racing again come true.
The process of driving the SAM Car begins with the removal of the roof of the modified Chevy Corvette, which allows a hoist to lower Sam into his seat. The SAM car project began when Arrow Electronics contacted Sam, asking about his interest in their semi-autonomous race car project. Sam immediately responded: If you build it, I will drive it.
The SAM cars technology is ever-evolving. In this version, the 2016 Corvette Z06, a processor translates data from the cameras and sensors to a rotary actuator on the steering wheel, allowing Sam to control the car via head movements and his breath.
In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the SAM car was displayed in Washington, D.C. on the National Mall. Visitors enjoyed taking a peek at the technology that powers the car.
Racecar drivers are always signing pictures for their fans and Sam is no different.
Before Sam is lowered into the car, Arrow engineers check the sip-and-puffsystem that Sam uses to accelerate and brake while driving.
A steady rain could not slow the SAM car as it competed in the Optima Ultimate Street Car Challenge at the National Corvette Museum race track in Bowling Green, KY.
It cost $15 to enter New York City using the Holland tunnel but with a remote camera mounted to the hood of the SAM car the view was priceless.
American race car driver Mario Andretti stops in to say hello to Sam after the pair did some demonstration laps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2017.
The small white dots on the lower part of the racing helmet connect to infrared cameras mounted on the car's dashboard, which detects Sam's head motions to steer. The response time from Sam's motion to the cars movement is only a few milliseconds.
In total, the SAM car is equipped with six cameras that are mounted directly in front of the passenger seat, which is where Sam drives from in the latest model. The top four cameras are infrared units, as pictured above.
As a race car driver, Sam had always imagined spending time in the car with his kids. After the accident, that seemed impossible -- Sam's daughter Savannah was just 18 months old at the time of the wreck. In 2018, the SAM car made it possible for Sam and Savannah to tour Washington, D.C., together.
While Sam can drive 150 mph on the track on the track he still needs the support of his family and assistants for nearly everything, like making a phone call.
For Sam, looking at the statue of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the National Mall prompted a moment of reflection on how far technology has come in assisting disabled people.
During downtime at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Sam and his daughter, Savannah, share a laugh.
Sam's driving isn't confined to the race track -- in 2016, Sam's home state of Nevada issued him a unique driver's license to legally drive the SAM car, making him the first quadriplegic in the U.S. with an autonomous drivers license. In the summer of 2017, Harry Smith of NBC's Today Show interviewed Sam before the two took a ride through midtown Manhattan traffic.
Smith has a chance to see the unique SAM car technology.
The challenge coin is traditionally given to a member of the military in recognition of excellence. Arrow Electronics created these coins to represent excellence in life, and to have as a keepsake for people to remind them to be the driver of their life.
A common trait of racecar drivers is their hunger to go fast. Sam wanted to drive the car 200 mph so it was upgraded with performance modifications and a location was found. Having one of the longest runways in the world the space shuttle landing facility at the Kennedy Space Shuttle was the perfect choice. In January 2021 Sam was loaded into the car, he made one pass down the 3-mile-long runway and achieved his milestone of 200 mph.
When Sam decided to go back to racing, friends and family were surprised. Everybody thought it was insane. Why would I go back to the sport that put me in a wheelchair? he said in a recent interview. I've been racing since I was 5 years old. It's all I ever wanted to do. And that, to me, is what's kept me alive for 21 years.
In 2020, Arrow Electronics began collaborating with robotic engineering researchers from Vanderbilt University to design the SAM Suit, a mobility suit based on modified exoskeleton technology that will help people with high-level spinal cord injuries to walk.
To modify the previously existing exoskeleton technology, the team included a full rigid backboard, sturdier leg branches, arm supports, and extensive support straps. Sensors at Sams feet detect his stride and modulate his speed.
The big reveal at Indy was SAM Suit 1.0. This is just the beginning and feels a lot like the first year of the SAM Car project. In the next year they we will be adding electronics that will help Sam balance and command the suit with head, breath and voice commands. Its the same principle as the SAM car, semiautonomous mobility-but the actual technology will be different.
The smile tells it all as Sam stands by the car park at the famous Gasoline Alley, within the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
" I've been photographing Sam for 6 years and his smile is just bigger when he is standing," Scott Robinson
With the help of the SAM Suit, Sam stands in front of his last race car, which he drove to victory in the last race of the 1999 season.