Always Looking Forward
A debilitating accident will not slow down Sam Schmidt (’86, MBA ’87)
Known for its gorgeous panoramic views, the drive up the 14,000-foot Pikes Peak in the Colorado Rockies has about 150 switchbacks, sharp turns, and, for the most part, no guard rails. But when he raced up the mountain in the Pikes Peak Hillclimb, Sam Schmidt made it to the top averaging 50 miles per hour, steering the car only by turning his head.
The Pikes Peak Hillclimb is just one of many races and race car exhibitions Schmidt, a person with quadriplegia, has participated in since he first drove a specially designed car in 2014. The car is outfitted with interior cameras that respond to sensors on Schmidt’s helmet, directing its movement.
”When you’re driving, you’re looking in your mirrors, you’re looking at what you’re passing. I can’t do that,” says Schmidt. “I can’t turn my head prematurely, or else.”
Schmidt’s passion in life has always been racing. As the son of a race car builder and driver, he is hardwired for speed. His parents moved to Southern California shortly after he was born, and family life was centered around the sport. While his friends were learning to ride bikes, Schmidt’s first set of wheels, at age 5, was a motorcycle.
He continued to dabble with racing throughout his youth, but he also knew the value of having other skills, and after earning his MBA at the Graziadio Business School in 1987, the lure of the business world took hold. Among other pursuits, he purchased his father’s auto parts company and for a while shared occupations with University founder George Pepperdine. But he also continued racing cars, and he felt in his heart he would always regret bypassing the chance to make it a career. He couldn’t not race. “My perspective was always to look forward,” says Schmidt.
Schmidt was an excellent race car driver; he won the West Coast championship his first year racing and finished third out of 42 cars in the National Championships. “That persuaded me I was pretty good at it,” he says. He then stepped up from Sports Car Club of America to professional open wheel racing. Schmidt raced in the IndyCar Series for three years, and in 1999 he had a great year, winning the Vegas.com 500 and leading at times in many others, including the Indy 500. He was determined to win it the following year. But in January 2000 Schmidt crashed into a wall during a routine test drive. Remarkably he survived, but his C3 and C4 vertebrae were destroyed, and he was paralyzed from the neck down.
At the time of the accident, Schmidt had been married for seven years and had two very young children. He devoted himself to his rehabilitation with a fervor, inspired by his new family to gain his strength and by his father, who had himself lost the use of his right side in a racing accident at the age of 30. Through physical rehabilitation, his father had recovered the use of his right leg and was living a productive, successful life. “For those with paralyzing injuries, intensive rehabilitation is important,” says Schmidt. “You have to give it 120 percent.”
In keeping with his personal mantra to look forward regardless of the obstacles and his determination to care for his family and manage the care he needed, a year later Schmidt started two new organizations. The first, Conquer Paralysis Now (CPN), is a foundation that funds paralysis research and treatment. The second, now called Arrow McLaren SP, is an IndyCar race team.
Schmidt has found ways to bring the worlds of car racing and disability recovery together with great success. ”It just worked out that starting a team and starting the foundation made sense,” he says. His team hosts “days at the races” programs for veterans and individuals with spinal cord injuries, both for fun and to offer visions of active, meaningful lives post-injury. More broadly, the motorsports community gives significant financial support to the foundation and to further the development of vehicles for people with disabilities.
Arrow Electronics began its partnership with Schmidt in 2013 to create a car that he could drive using only his head. They devised the Arrow Corvette, also known as the SAM (semi-autonomous mobility) car, which is controlled by a combination of head motion, breath, and, for street driving, voice. Schmidt’s helmet and sunglasses contain sensors that are tracked by four infrared cameras facing him from the windshield of the car. The beams from the cameras monitor the movement of the sensors, calculate the turn's degree and direction, and relay that information to the wheels. “We’ve had thousands of customers drive the car in exhibitions, and you need to give them a big parking lot, because they want to turn their head too early,” Schmidt notes.
Schmidt directs the speed of the car with a straw in his mouth. He blows out to move forward—his top speed to date is 201 miles per hour—and sucks in to slow down and brake. He keeps the car in motion by biting on the straw to retain the pressure inside it. It takes practice to control the speed well. “If I whisper a breath, it is like coming upon a stop light; if I blow hard, the car’s going to do donuts,” he says. When not racing, Schmidt controls features such as turn signals and lights with voice commands, not unlike Amazon’s Alexa technology. The technology at work is under constant development; a recent innovation is the creation of a right-side driver’s seat for Schmidt, which is easier for him to access than the left.
The technology used in the SAM car has allowed Schmidt to be a race car driver again. He recently returned from a tour of England where he raced in a similarly converted McLaren 720S, a road car that reaches a speed of 225 miles per hour. “It’s an amazing feeling to be in control of the car. I’m steering it, I’m driving it,” he says.
But what is even more powerful is the twofold potential this technology has for changing lives. Its tangible uses for people with disabilities are almost limitless. “This technology can help someone get back to work, whether it’s a farmer harvesting a farm or someone driving a train or driving a forklift,” Schmidt says. In addition, the potential for self-sufficiency and the purposefulness that Schmidt demonstrates as a race car driver serve as a great inspiration. “At the foundation, we get emails and texts from people every day who are motivated to get off the couch and get back to work and get something of their life back,” he says.
I can look anyone who has a lesser injury in the eye and say, "What are you waiting for?"
—Sam Schmidt (’86, MBA ’87)
Although motivating others became a theme of Schmidt’s life by default, he has decided to make it a mission. The intensive rehabilitation program offered by his foundation’s DRIVEN Neuro Recovery Center requires clients to commit to a lot of hard work, and Schmidt admits his limited patience for people who give up easily. “I enjoy kicking people back to life,” he says.
Schmidt’s arguably aggressive stance to motivation was an outgrowth of his own experience. As his father had regained the use of his leg after his accident, Schmidt was determined to recover the use of his arms. “I was working out two to three hours a day, just to get my arms back, just to be able to hug my kids.” But his efforts simply didn’t work, and it occurred to him that he was not meant to regain the use of his limbs. As a person with quadriplegia, his situation made him the perfect example of someone overcoming obstacles. “I can look anyone who has a lesser injury in the eye and say, ‘What are you waiting for? I have nothing. You have the use of your arms, or you have the use of your left side.’ I’ve given that speech hundreds of times.”
Schmidt’s work has successfully given many people with disabilities the will, confidence, and, through the Neuro Recovery Center, the physical ability to live fully and productively. He related the story of one teenager who had earned a scholarship to Duke University. He became a person with quadriplegia after an accident, and the young man’s family asked Schmidt for his help. With a year of physical rehabilitation, the young man attended Duke unescorted, thereafter earned a Rhodes scholarship, and started his own foundation providing academic scholarships for those with disabilities. “He’s a force of nature,” says Schmidt, “but I wouldn’t have had the authority to empower people like him if I had the use of my arms.”
When it comes to himself, Schmidt always looks forward, but he never stops looking back at the support of his family and his deep fondness for his alma mater, where he met Sheila (’87), the love of his life and his wife of nearly 30 years. His parents, Sheila, and his daughter, Savannah (’19), were all at Alumni Park in April when he received an honorary doctorate from Seaver College at his son Spencer’s graduation. The fortitude and faith of his parents have been his inspiration, and his wife has been an unwavering partner. “If she were not by my side through all of it, I couldn’t find the motivation to keep doing what I do.”
And, he says, he and his family owe a lot to Pepperdine—the only school that had any appeal to him as a high schooler. "I originally toured 11 schools but only applied to Pepperdine," he says. The beautiful location and atmosphere were irresistible. But the school's less tangible offerings ultimately played a much larger role in his life—providing values of leadership and service that he continues to live by. They also served to deepen his faith. "I came to Pepperdine already having received Christ as my savior, but the University experience taught me how to have a relationship with God that transcends everything in my personal and business life,” he says. “I would not be the father or businessman that I am today without having attended Pepperdine."