Sam Schmidt, a paralyzed former race car driver, is driving and even walking again thanks to the work of my client, Arrow Electronics. I’m chronicling Sam’s journey.
Sam Schmidt likes to go fast even with his physical limitations. For the first few years of the SAM project, a Chevy Corvette was the car of choice. On this day, at the Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida Sam tested out a new McClaren which put a smile on his face. How fast did he go....213 mph.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.