Sam Schmidt grateful for a qualification of a lifetime at IMS

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SPEEDWAY – With so much sophistication involved, it figured that he would be overwhelmed with a number of different thoughts and feelings on Sunday morning.

After all, it’s been 14 years since Sam Schmidt stepped into any kind of automobile in the role of driver. An accident in Orlando in early 2000 left the IndyCar driver paralyzed from the neck down, relying on a wheelchair and others to live daily.

But when that happened on Sunday morning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway–Schmidt getting into a retrofit Corvette Stingray which through infrared sensors allows him to drive again–his feelings were quite simple and precise.

That doesn’t mean they were any less powerful.

“I came into this project thinking I would be overwhelmed with emotion just coming back to the Brickyard,” said Schmidt, who took the car around for four “qualifying” laps before the start of Pole Day for the 98th Indianapolis 500. “But again the major sense of emotion came from just the amount of normalcy that came from driving a car.

“It’s a great feeling.”

Doing this is as equally incredible of a feat considering it as just nine months ago that Arrow Electronics came to Schmidt with the idea of an automobile that would allow a quadriplegic to drive once again. As a former driver, Schmidt was approached about the idea when Arrow along with Ball Aerospace Technologies and the United States Air Force joined up to make this project happen.

“It all came together for Sam to drive the car,” said Arrow Electronics Vice President of Engineering Chakib Loucif. “Sam has only the capacity (to move) from the neck up. From day one, we wanted to develop a system for Sam that would allow him to control a car by using his natural movements with his head.”

After just under a year of work on the project, a system was developed to allow that to happen. Through the use of sensors in car, Schmidt is able to control the speed of the automobile and the direction by just moving his head.

“Tilting his head to the left will turn the car to the left, to the right then to the right; he uses a pressure sensor in his mouth to bite on and the harder he bites, the harder he brakes,” said Loucif of the function of the car. “We enable Sam to interact with the vehicle.

“Here we are today, nine months into the project.”

Sunday wasn’t the first time that Schmidt stepped into the car since he gave it a test run at an Air Force base the week before and at the speedway for a few laps before the official unveiling. Schmidt made the most of his time on the track, getting the Corvette to 97 miles an hour on one of his laps before returning to a round of applause from fans along with drivers and team owners from the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“There isn’t one word to describe it,” said Schmidt of his run around the speedway. “It’s exhilarating, it’s unbelievable.”

Perhaps it will be beneficial to causes for those who have been paralyzed in accidents themselves. Loucif hopes that this technology will also inspire innovation in the areas of industry and at-home health care. According to Denver-area neurosurgeon Dr. Scott Falci, the car has already been able to generate attention for paraplegic and quadriplegic patients.

“It’s created a huge buzz nationwide,” said Dr. Falci of the car. “I’m getting patients who are emailing me, calling me from all around the country and even internationally.”

On Sunday, he and his colleagues got some thanks from their first patient. All he was happy about was a simple sense of normalcy.