Friday, January 6, 2023 by René Fagnan
Race car driver Sam Schmidt was preparing to play a third full season in the Indy Racing League series when his life tragically turned upside down. Victim of a terrible accident at the Orlando oval in Florida which left him a quadriplegic, Sam Schmidt, driven by fierce determination, became the owner of his IRL team, a series renamed IndyCar, and allowed the Quebecer Alexandre Tagliani to take pole position in the Indianapolis 500 Miles in 2011.
Sam Schmidt was born on August 15, 1964 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Sam’s dad was a good drag racer and Sam started racing motocross when he was five years old. Later, in school, he abandoned two wheels and joined team sports including football, baseball and basketball.
A gifted student, he earned a bachelor’s degree in administration and then a master’s degree in international finance from Pepperdine University. His diplomas in hand, he progressed successfully within the management of a chain of hospitals in Southern California, becoming an administrator at the age of 24. Then, in 1989, he bought out his father’s auto parts business. His comfortable income finally allows him to satisfy his passion for motorsport.
Beginnings in road circuits
He bought a boat from the American Sports Renault series in 1992 and raced in the SCCA regional series. A year later, he was crowned champion of the western region and won the national championships in the category at Road Atlanta. In 1995, he placed third in the Hooters Pro Cup series and was also named Rookie of the Year.
In 1997, he decided to race in the IRL series. He contested six races, discovering the ovals, the powerful IRL single-seaters and the intricacies of driving in a tight peloton. A year later, he signed his first podium. In 1999, pilot of the Treadway Racing team, he won his first IRL victory on the Las Vegas oval.
At the final round of the season, held at Texas Motor Speedway, Sam is third in the standings, but still has a shot at winning the title. Unfortunately, his car crashed into the protective wall during the race. Not only did he inflict serious foot injuries, but he fell to fifth place in the championship.
Schmidt is spending the winter in rehab and is determined to come back even stronger in the IRL series. At the beginning of January 2000, the Treadway Racing team carried out tests with Schmidt aboard the G-Force/Aurora/Firestone on the oval of the Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Florida.
He was driving on the track when suddenly, at 9:20 a.m., the rear axle of the single-seater abruptly stalled at the exit of turn 2. The car pivoted on itself and hit the concrete wall at 180 miles per hour ( 290 km/h). The G-Force’s engine and gearbox were very heavy, and it was not uncommon for a small driver error to cause the car to spin violently in the middle of a turn. .
Help arrives quickly on the spot and poor Schmidt is airlifted to the Orlando Regional Medical Center where the doctors discover fractures of the C-3 and C-4 vertebrae. His spinal cord is seriously affected and he is placed on an artificial respirator. His wife takes an overnight flight from Nevada and goes to his bedside. The doctors admit to being surprised to find that he survived a night of hell.
Sam is then transferred to Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri. It is confirmed that he is quadriplegic and is spending three weeks on a ventilator. He finally regains consciousness and does five hours of rehabilitation every day. He learns to speak again, but knows he will be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He leaves the hospital six weeks after the accident.
Inspired by the life of Sir Frank Williams, he became in 2001 – 14 months after his accident – owner of a racing team. In 2004, Sam Schmidt Motorsports claimed the Infiniti Pro series title. At the end of 2010, he bought the assets of the FAZZT Race Team from Quebecer André Azzi and entered a full-time car in the IndyCar Series. Its driver Alexandre Tagliani took pole position in the Indy 500 on May 21, 2011.
Having become Schmidt Petersen Motorsports (SPM), the team founded by Sam Schmidt now represents the McLaren brand’s commitment to the IndyCar series. Under the name Arrow McLaren SP, the team will enter three cars in the series this year.