After accident, Sam Schmidt shifts from driver to owner

Sam Schmidt knows he would have been long retired by now, his racing career faded completely from life's rearview mirror. He isn't sure what he would be doing aside from helping his wife, Sheila, raise their two teenage children at their home outside Las Vegas.

Schmidt, 48, is certain he wouldn't be the owner of his own IndyCar racing team if not for a racing accident a dozen years ago that left him a quadriplegic.


"I don't think I'd be a car owner. I think I would have been smarter than that," Schmidt said Friday. "I might have raced another two, maybe three years, and then gone on to some other corporate business. … If I had finished my career and been walking, I'd be a visitor and a spectator and a fan, but I wouldn't be an owner."

Schmidt's life changed dramatically after it nearly ended when he crashed during a testing event outside Orlando, Fla., in January 2000. He spent five weeks on a respirator and nearly six months in the hospital before returning home to Nevada.


Though grateful to be alive, Schmidt had no idea how he was going to support his family.

"When my wife and I got married, I was on the road 250 days a year, full-time driving, testing, the whole deal," said Schmidt, sitting in his voice-activated wheelchair in the paddock area at the Baltimore Convention Center. "Now I come home after being in the hospital, and after three months my wife said, 'OK, only doing therapy and being around the house all day is going to drive me nuts.' I started looking for things for do."

Schmidt, who started his racing career in his mid-20s after getting his degree in finance from Pepperdine and buying his family's business, knew he didn't want to go back to a 9-to-5 job. That he spent 21/2 hours each morning doing physical therapy — a ritual that continues to this day — was also a large deterrent.

"Although I had done other things in between that I was successful at — call it normal business — wearing a coat and tie every day and working in a corporate environment, even starting, building and selling a company wasn't something I wanted to do, based on the effort it took to do it," said Schmidt, who had moderate success as an IndyCar driver, winning once, while driving in three Indianapolis 500s.

A year after his horrific accident, Sam Schmidt Motorsports was born. It has grown into a team of five full-time drivers, including IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year Simon Pagenaud of France and Indy Lights series points leader Esteban Guerrieri of Agentina.

All five of Schmidt's drivers will be competing Sunday in the Grand Prix of Baltimore races.

And, according to Sheila Schmidt, so will her husband of nearly 20 years.

"I don't think he had reached his full potential as a driver when he got hurt, so that competitive nature will stay with him his whole life," Sheila Schmidt said. "Racing-wise, he's just always challenged. He's always trying to be the best. He doesn't want to race if he can't win, whether he's driving the car or not. I think he still thinks he's driving the car."


Said Pagenaud: "Sam is very determined, he wants to compete, he wants to be at the top level. But he's always supportive; he's never said anything that would upset me and unsettle me. It's great for my confidence level."

Schmidt said in the months after the accident, only two fellow drivers visited him in the hospital that was only a few hours from Indianapolis, in part because they feared seeing their own future lying motionless in the bed. Even when he returned as a race owner, many were uncomfortable approaching him.

But as the years have gone on, Schmidt said, "They told me that after time, they got past the chair. Several of them said that it just goes away and they don't see me as the guy in the chair anymore. They see me as a competitor."

Pagenaud, who met Schmidt at the Indianapolis Speedway in 2010, said seeing Schmidt is as much cautionary tale as competitive inspiration.

"I think you can't lie, when you see Sam, you wonder whether it's worth it," Pagenaud said. "I don't see my life outside of racing and I wouldn't give it up for any reason. We're lucky that racecars are a lot safer since his accident. Unfortunately, and fortunately, his accident made for a big step in safety for IndyCar."

It is certainly a priority for Schmidt.


"If anything, we focus on the safety because of my situation," Schmidt said. "We don't cut any corners. It's a quality seat, it's a quality headrest. The driver doesn't drive without the proper safety equipment. The parents [of his younger Indy Lights drivers] after spending a little bit of time realize that they're not going to be able to find a safer environment anywhere else because of my situation."

Then there's the matter of his own children. Schmidt said his 13-year-old son, Spencer, showed little interest in racing himself until recently. Schmidt said his 15-year-old daughter, Savannah, who has done competitive cheer and played travel soccer, quickly followed with her own request. Next Saturday, Schmidt's children will drive go-carts at a local track near the family's home.

"We're going to let him go drive it, but more importantly we're going to let him see all the other stuff they've got to do in preparation to drive it," Schmidt said. "Their grandma and grandpa probably won't like it, but we've always taken the same stance whether it's been soccer or competitive cheer or football, that we would support them. We're not going to go back on that because I got hurt. But we're going to take all the precautions and we're probably not going to spend much time doing it if they're not any good."

Aside from his racing team, and the money he and his foundation are raising for spinal cord research, his family is what keeps Schmidt going. Brad Kruetzer, a retired Nevada firefighter who met Schmidt through a mutual friend and now works on the Indy Lights maintenance crew, said "the man has no self-pity, never. He is grateful for every day he gets to live after the accident and says, 'My kids get to hug me.' "

Said Sheila Schmidt: "I'm not going to say he doesn't have off-days — we all have bad days once in a while — but for the most part he says, 'This is what we have, so let's move forward and what can we do.' He has his foundation. He wants to get out of his chair. Will it happen? We don't know. But without hope, you have nothing. So we continue that hope."

The most despondent Kruetzer has ever seen Schmidt was after two-time IndyCar champion Dan Wheldon died in a crash during the season-ending race last year in Las Vegas.


"There were so many coincidences between Dan Wheldon and Sam Schmidt," Kruetzer said. "They were about the same age. Sam had two little bitty ones at the time, Dan had two little bitty ones. So many similarities. I remember seeing Sam, and I said, 'How are you doing?' He said, 'Why does Dan die and I don't, what's the difference?' I said your number wasn't up, your work's not done."

The work will continue in the pit area Sunday in Baltimore. Sheila Schmidt, who is in town for the Grand Prix, spends more time at home now as a race owner's wife than she did as the race driver's wife. But she sees how her husband's life has grown since that horrific day in Florida a dozen years ago.

"I think it's busier, I think he's taken on a lot more since his accident," she said. "I think he's always trying to do something more, do something better. He loves racing — that's where his passion is and that's where it always will be."