SCI Superstar: Sam Schmidt

Sam in his Chevrolet Corvette, driving using a straw and camera points on his hat.

Legendary is one word to describe the man that is Sam Schmidt. In the racing world, Sam Schmidt is a storied name. In the disability world, Sam Schmidt is a storied name. He makes an impact in whichever world he exists, which is exactly why he is the perfect person for our SCI Superstar series.

He may have lived with C3-4 quadriplegia for 17 years, but that doesn’t define who he is. Born into a family with racing in its blood, he started racing competitively when he was just five, and Sam’s injury has only changed the way he enjoys his life’s passion. Read on to see the ingenious ways this husband, father and businessman has re-purposed one of the things he loves most.

Why he’s fearless

Born in Lincoln, Nebraska and growing up in southern California, Sam was raised by a father who loved to race. He grew up working on race cars and his father competed in drag races, super modifieds and off-road until he was 10 years old. Even though he stopped racing after his father was injured (one side of his body became paralyzed), Sam’s fierce love for the sport never wavered. After graduating from Pepperdine University with an MBA in International Finance, he found himself back in the racing world. Working his way up through the ranks, he qualified for his first Indycar competition in 1997, and he won his first IndyCar race two years later in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas in 1999, ”My peak,” he likes to say.

Three months after winning his first IndyCar race in Orlando while practicing at the Walt Disney world speedway (in the off-season), he hit the wall and crushed his C3-4 vertebrae. His parents, wife Sheila and their two children, Spencer and Savannah (who were very young at the time), rallied to his side. The four remain a tight family unit until this day. Living in Henderson, Nevada, Sam may not be able to move his arms, but he is a hands-on father in every way, from teaching his kids to drive to being someone they look up to constantly. Watch an interview with Sam and his son

After his injury, Sam knew he needed to keep busy, which is why within a year of his injury he founded a racing team to compete in Indy Lights and IndyCar in 2001. In 2013 he teamed up with Ric Peterson. They’ve accumulated over 70 wins, 70 pole positions and seven championship wins.

Sam and James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda. 8/20/2016. Courtesy of Motorsport.com

After running his racing team for 13 years, Sam was contacted by Arrow Electronics, a company based in Colorado, who wanted to develop a semi-autonomous car specifically around Sam’s abilities. Once he verified it was safe, Sam was all in. Within months, they worked together to create an amazing piece of technology – a complete mouth and head control system that allows Sam to drive a Corvette.

Sam in front of his 400+ HP Corvette, which he drives with his mouth.

In 2014, Sam first tested the car at a raceway in Indianapolis. The feeling of being behind the wheel again under his own power was unlike anything he’s felt since before his injury he says, and we can believe it. To drive he wears a pair special sunglasses that are tracked by six cameras in the vehicle. By turning his head left or right, Sam is able to steer the car. He jokes he needed to retrain his mind (and an extension, his head) to not look around while driving, as to not steer himself off the road.

To accelerate, Sam blows into a straw. To brake, he sucks in on the straw. He also uses voice commands to control other functions of the car. The entire setup is awesome. Sam says he never thought he’d be able to drive again, but now “just driving again” is going much further than that.

What’s next?

After he drove the first time post-injury on April 7, 2014, Sam wanted take the car out into the world as much as possible. He demo’d it at Long Beach Grand Prix circuit, and he impressed everyone at the Indy 500 last year when he drove a new version of the car, taking it up to 152 mph in a demonstration before the race.

Sam still wanted more. Last June, he participated in Pikes Peak Hill Climb in Colorado, a 13 mile hill climb with over 150 turns which he completed in just 15 minutes. Not bad!

And Sam’s most recent driving feat? Amazingly the team at Arrow worked out an agreement with the Nevada DMV to create a special drivers license so he could drive on the streets, and off the racetrack. Last September, Sam became the first person in the United States to receive a special drivers license for driving a semi-autonomous vehicle! He is however required to have a co-driver with him whenever he drives.

Driving and running his racing team however are just some of his passions. His other life’s passion is raising money for spinal cord injury research, which his foundation, Conquer Paralysis Now, with the overall goal of advancing medical treatments and technologies towards a cure. Sam believes that if his foundation could raise $100 million that he could cure spinal cord injuries in just 10 years.

Whether it’s driving fast or racing towards a cure, Sam is a man in motion. He won’t be stopped, nor slowed down, no matter what he sets his sights on, and we love him for it.

Would you drive a semi-autonomous car?

– Sam’s foundation: Conquer Paralysis Now

– Sam’s racing team: Schmidt Peterson Motorsports

Watch videos of Sam!

ABC story they aired before the Indy 500: Sam’s Story

CBS Courage in Sports

The tech allowing a paralyzed man to drive – BBC Click

Disabled man getting license in Las Vegas, showing driverless tech’s potential

Sam Schmidt on NBC Nightly News

Pikes Peak Hill Climb

Three SCI Videos! Cooking with a Celeb Chef, Rome by Wheelchair, Quadriplegic Beauty Vlogger on The Doctors

We’re constantly adding new content to our site, hoping to inspire and educate the entire community of people affected by spinal cord injury. Now we’re re-introducing our regular blog series highlighting the best of our latest videos. Simply called “New Videos!,” you’ll find videos guaranteed to keep you watching until the very end.

From a quad rugby player cooking with a celebrity chef to a wheelchair beauty vlogger’s interview with The Doctors TV show, sit back and watch – then let us know what you think of our three highlighted videos below!

Video #1: Cooking With Team USA | Chuck Aoki Makes A One-Pot Wonder In The Kitchen

We love a good cooking video here at SPINALpedia, but finding one featuring a wheelchair-user can be difficult; especially one that’s also TV-quality AND features a famous chef (although we once saw a paraplegic on Guy’s Grocery Games). That’s why this video from last fall – “Cooking with Team USA’s Chuck Aoki – Chuck Makes A One-Pot Wonder In The Kitchen” – is so great.

Chuck is one of the leading scorers on Team USA’s Quad Rugby team. While he is not a quad (some of his fingers are amputated), he is a lifelong wheelchair-user. Watch him team-up with renowned chef Richard Blais (winner of Top Chef, host of Hunger Games on the Food Network). Together they make a mouth-watering pork chop over sauteed greens with cannelloni beans, and what’s amazing is that his so-called inabilities aren’t referenced once. Richard Blais – you are one classy guy. Watch here

Video #2: Rome Wheelchair Travel VLOG

Traveling to Rome in a wheelchair is nothing new, but it’s never been done quite as snarky as the way Vince Preap has covered it. He is a paraplegic from Canada who recently traveled solo to Rome, documenting the sights along the way. An expert at taking the “rolling selfie,” Vince has a panache for showing up late to all of the cool tourist attractions (don’t worry; he ends up seeing everything he wants once he figures out how to plan his days better).

In his vlog, he gives a tour of the Leonardo train, the Vatican museums (including how to deal with the crazy crowds and the accessible chair that gets you into the Sistine chapel), eating gelato and pasta, and the ultimate sight on his Rome Bucket List – the Coliseum. He shares how this famous arena is free for wheelchair-users and shows off some surprising accessible features. Watch here

Video #3: Beauty Vlogger Tragedy – The Doctors

Paralyzed seven years ago in a car accident, Steph Aiello is a rising star on Instagram known for her incredible makeup vlogs (she has more than 97k followers!). Steph was recently featured on the CBS TV show The Doctors to talk about her injury and how her recovery was boosted by her love of makeup (practicing with the tools enabled her to become more of a C7 quad dexterity-wise vs. a C6-5 quad.) And she dubs herself @uwalk_iglide, a perfect analogy for how she’s transitioned into life as a wheelchair-user.

But it hasn’t been easy, as she shares in this emotional video. After sharing her story and demonstrating on-camera how she applies makeup, Steph makes an appearance on the show and becomes emotional after watching herself in the video. It’s powerful and boy are we happy the entire country has the opportunity to hear her story. Watch here

Remember – we’re always searching for videos that are captivating to those with SCI! We hope the above three delivered. If you have a video you’d like to recommend for our next “New SCI Videos!” blog, please send the link to spinalpedia@gmail.com.

Quick Links to the Videos

Cooking With Team USA | Chuck Aoki Makes A One-Pot Wonder In The Kitchen
Rome Wheelchair Travel VLOG
Beauty Vlogger Tragedy