When James Hinchcliffe slammed hard into a wall and his back end went up in flames during a practice session leading into the Indianapolis 500 last month, team owner Sam Schmidt’s heart dropped. He lost his breath.
If anyone understands the ramifications of a spectacular crash, it’s Schmidt.
“I’ve been through it,” Schmidt said. “It’s crushing. It really takes your breath away. You just never want to see it happen.”
Schmidt has had to live through it firsthand as a quadriplegic. He started his career as a promising driver before a crash during testing in January 2000 left him paralyzed from the neck down. He now goes through a three-hour process every morning to simply get his day going.
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Hinchcliffe is expected to make a full recovery from the life-threatening thigh and pelvic injuries he suffered during the wreck.
For Schmidt, though, seeing wrecks like Hinchcliffe’s always bring up the same question –— is it worth it?
He asked that exact question after Davey Hamilton required 21 surgeries to recover from a crash at Texas Motor Speedway in 2001. And again in 2011 when he seriously considered walking away from the sport after a wreck at Las Vegas Motor Speedway took the life of Dan Wheldon.
“You always take a step back and say, ‘Is this what we want to do?’” Schmidt said.
The answer, although never easy, is always yes. The passion and fire to race burns too deeply for Schmidt and his team to leave the sport.
And Schmidt’s success has inspired and shown other paraplegics that the obstacles can be overcome and a full life can be had. The IndyCar stage has also helped him spread the message of his foundation, Conquer Paralysis Now, which fights to cure paralysis.
“What a phenomenal success story against tremendous odds,” TMS president Eddie Gossage said. “I don’t know if you could have faulted Sam if he just kind of disappeared after that horrible accident. Instead, he reinvented himself and has become a formidable force as an owner in IndyCar and in Indy Lights.
“I’m glad to see Sam doing what he’s doing.”
Schmidt’s path to ownership wasn’t a typical one. He credits his father for giving him stubbornness to overcome the greatest odds.
Schmidt’s childhood dreams were to race in the Indy 500 and, when people told him he couldn’t, he was driven even more. He got there in 1997 and ran the prestigious event for three consecutive seasons.
Then the life-altering accident occurred near Orlando, Fla., and Schmidt wasn’t going to let that define him. He stayed in the racing industry, starting his own team and going on to have great success by winning a record seven championships in Indy Lights, open-wheel racing’s minor leagues.
People told Schmidt he peaked with his Indy Lights team, but he didn’t believe them.
“I used to joke growing up that if I ever wanted to get my dad involved in something, I’d tell him he couldn’t do it,” Schmidt said. “And he was so stubborn that that would drive him to get it done. And it appears I probably sort of inherited that trait from him.
“Nobody thought we could possibly compete with the big dogs in IndyCar, so that was just another kick in the butt for us.”
Schmidt entered the IndyCar circuit in 2011, and has experienced his fair share of success with five wins in four years. He joined forces with RicPeterson to form Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2013, and their two-car organization has competed on a level with the heavily funded teams such as Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing.
Hinchcliffe won the Grand Prix of Louisiana earlier this year, and James Jakes has had his moments, such as finishing third in Louisiana. With Hinchcliffe sidelined for the season, Schmidt has brought in veteran Ryan Briscoe to fill-in.
Briscoe brings plenty of experience with seven career wins, including the 2010 race at Texas. Schmidt is hoping Briscoe visits Victory Lane once again in Texas at Saturday’s Firestone 600.
It’d be another against-the-odds tale for Schmidt in a long line of them. Heck, he’s even surprised himself with how well his ownership tenure has gone.
“Without a doubt, driving was a lot easier than owning a team,” Schmidt said, chuckling. “It’s one thing if you want to come over and be a team owner and sort of exist at the back of the pack. But I wanted to come over and compete.
“It’s been tough, but I’ve really taken great pride in it, and I’ve been blessed to work with some great people. We’ve got great chemistry and it just makes it that much sweeter when we have success.”
Drew Davison, 817-390-7760
Sam Schmidt file
College: Pepperdine University (B.S. in business administration; MBA in international finance)
Resides: Las Vegas
Racing career: Promising driver who raced in the Indianapolis 500 from 1997-99; driving days ended after life-altering crash in January 2000 near Orlando, Fla., left him paralyzed from the neck down.
Ownership career: Founded Sam Schmidt Motorsports in 2001, which became Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2013. Has won a record seven Indy Lights championships, and also has a two-car operation competing in the IndyCar Series.
Did you know? Last spring at the Indy 500, Schmidt drove for the first time at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a specially equipped Corvette C7 Stingray. Earlier this year, he drove the same car almost two laps around the street course in Long Beach, Calif. The hope is for Schmidt to get his driver’s license in 2017.