Sam Schmidt returns to IMS

Published: .
Updated: .

In 2000, a practice session forever changed former race car driver Sam Schmidt’s life.

A devastating crash at the Walt Disney Speedway left Schmidt a quadriplegic, but he vowed to return to the track he’s loved so much.

He’s done that as a race car owner – owning the 2011 winning car; but on Sunday, he returned to the track as a driver thanks to substantial technological advances.

Fellow race car drivers stopped what they were doing to come and be a part of the moment Sunday morning. Some spectators even shed a tear for a day they thought they'd never see.

At the end of his trip, he’s all smiles, pausing with a moment for photos with those who have meant so much.

“I don't think there is one word. It’s exhilarating, it's unbelievable. It’s amazing to be normal,” Schmidt said. “In 15 years I haven't been in control of anything.”

He kept his emotions on the inside.

“I came into this project thinking I would be overwhelmed with emotion and just coming back to the brickyard and I think the major sense of emotion came from the amount of normalcy I felt driving the car,” he said.

Normalcy is the thing that prompted him to get involved nearly a year ago, when doctors and developers approached him.

“We're working with the US Air Force and it's only in simulator phase right now, but we're working on technology where a pilot only has to move his head to steer the craft,” said Dr. Scott Falci, chief neurosurgeon, Craig Hospital, and founder of Falci Adaptive Motorsports.

They worked with Ball Aerodynamics to get that into a car, opening up new possibilities.

Moving the head steers the car, while moving the head back speeds things up. A hat contains a complex group of sensors following every move.

“In the back here we have a couple of industrial PCs,” a developer explains.

The breaking is controlled by a mouth piece.

“I crossed the row of bricks there on the last lap at about 100 mph and that was the goal, so cross that off the list,” Schmidt laughed.

Every lap of his trip Sunday morning brought more optimism, he says.

“I'm inspired by this project. It's kind of reenergized me that we can find a cure for paralysis in my lifetime,” Schmidt said.

And just like the license plate on the back of the technologically beefed up 2014 Camaro he drove – RCR 4 LIF – it keeps Sam Schmidt a racer for life both on and off the track.

Developers hope to continue working with the program to find other uses for the technology.