Sam Schmidt has a new semi-autonomous Corvette C8, and took part in last weekend’s auto test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He spoke to David Malsher-Lopez.
Sam Schmidt, former racecar driver, possesses the unrelenting determination and voracious enthusiasm of a current racer. Maybe he’s making up for both lost time – he didn’t race an Indy car until he was 31 – and also a lost career – he was rendered paraplegic by a huge crash at Walt Disney World Speedway less than three years later.
In between times, he finished fifth in the 1999 Indy Racing League, a result aided by a pole and victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Last weekend, he returned to LVMS to take part in the Optima Batteries Search for the Ultimate Street Car challenge – an autotest on the track’s road course.
This latest slice of driving fulfillment for the Arrow McLaren SP team founder and co-owner came through the marvel of modern science – namely off-the-shelf technology customized for Schmidt by Arrow Electronics, the Denver, CO.-based company that has sponsored his IndyCar team since 2015. Even aside from their on-track achievements in IndyCar – taking pole at the Indy 500, winning the Grand Prix of Long Beach, for examples – the company and Schmidt have been on quite a journey together.
The first notable achievement came in 2014 when, driving an Arrow-modified 455hp Corvette C7 Stingray, Schmidt set a speed record for a semi autonomous motorcar [SAM, appropriately], reaching 107mph. Two years later, in the build-up to the 2016 Indianapolis 500, Schmidt used another Corvette C7, this time the 650hp Z/06 variant, to lap the Speedway at an average of 108mph, hitting up to 152mph on the straights.
That was a banner year for Schmidt, as he went on to not only take the ’Vette up the sinuous and daunting Pikes Peak Hillclimb but also become the first recipient of an autonomous vehicle driver license in his home state of Nevada.
Given his lack of arm and leg movement, Arrow’s system uses motion capture technology, as used in sophisticated video gaming, whereby Schmidt steers the car with his head – infrared cameras mounted on the Corvette’s dashboard detect head movement by reading sensors on his glasses/sunglasses. And he blows down a tube to apply the throttle, and sucks on the tube to apply the brakes – known within the industry as sip-’n’-puff technology.
The latest SAM that Arrow has converted is the mid-engined C8 Corvette, which went into production this time last year. As ever, part of the Corvette’s appeal is its targa top, allowing easier ingress and egress for a disabled driver, while another part is the fact that even in standard tune, Chevrolet’s LT2 engine pushes out 490hp, enough to send the car from 0 to 60mph in 3sec. Schmidt remains a speed junkie.
He recently notched up a major achievement that will be made public soon, and has another couple of adventures on the horizon that again are not quite ready to be announced. Watch this space, etc. But Sam’s adeptness with these modified cars is no secret to IndyCar fans who have seen him demonstrating the C7 Corvettes not only on the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway but also at Long Beach and Sonoma. Nor will we easily forget the duel he had with another Corvette, driven by Mario Andretti, around the IMS road course a few years back.
But when Motorsport.com spoke to Schmidt last Sunday, his head was full of the here and now, for he was still in the heat of competition in Vegas, between rounds.
And anyone who’s in regular contact with him would have detected a change in tone from the easygoing guy who plays down drama. Sam is an expert at sounding merely irritated whenever he’s angry, speaking in a contented manner when in fact he’s bursting with pride and satisfaction, and in keeping his words controlled, his pace measured, even when his face emotes. Last weekend, adrenaline had upped the timbre and pace of his patter.
“It’s three disciplines – an autocross, a speed stop and a full-on road course. It’s one-by-one, so against the clock, not door-to-door, but it’s still pretty exhausting and exciting.
“The autocross is the most challenging for us because we have to program the Corvette for very tight corners, which means giving it a really quick steering ratio, which makes it really squirrely on the straightaways. But we have four runs at it, and we started out with a 67sec time and ended up with a 59.5 so we improved each time.
“The speed stop, I think we feel pretty good about. You drag race down a straight, make a left turn, then come back and stop in a prescribed box, and that’s your time. Then you do the same but to the right. I think I’m sitting 20th out of 73 at the moment.
“Then on the road course, there are seven classes, and I’m currently fourth in the GTS class [out of 14] and as you can tell, that’s the fun part, where I can really get rocking and rolling. With the technology we’ve got, we’re now at a point where we’re needing to upgrade a little. One good lap on the road course and the front tires are shot, and it’s about all we can get out of it.
“But overall, it’s great. It’s just like 21 years ago where I just show up with my helmet and there’s a well prepared car waiting for me thanks to the Arrow engineers, and all I need to do is get in and drive it, instead of having to find a check for it!
“It’s a hell of a lot of fun. It’s great that (a) it’s the same location as 21 years ago when I won an IndyCar race here, and (b) I’m actually on the road course I was on 29 years when I started in SCCA. It’s a full circle moment for me. I’ve got some friends out here with me, as well as some other folks in wheelchairs who have come along to support me. It’s a good weekend.”
For anyone not used to it, it’s hard to imagine the precision needed in breathing techniques and restraining head movement to steer the SAM Corvette around a road course, or getting it stopped precisely within a painted box, or doing the fiddly point-and-squirt around the orange cones of an autocross – all without using hands or feet!
“Yeah, it’s still the sip-n-puff for the gas and brakes, and AI cameras for the steering,” says Schmidt, “but now I’m properly competing, I use a full firesuit, Nomex, and so on and we’ve also put some proper race seats in it so I’m a little more supported.
Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images
“But the big change with this C8 Corvette is that I’ve now put myself on the right side of the car – the passenger seat – so it’s easier to get in and out because there’s no obstruction in front of me, and with no steering-wheel or dash, there’s no distractions. It’s like, “Look mom, no hands!” – it gives the full autonomous driving experience!
“The C8 Corvette is amazing, with the mid-mounted engine. The balance is very good and it’s got good power and good throttle response. If we get some true race tires on it, I think we could really haul ass but at the moment we are overcooking the front tires so we need wider wheels.
“But if I wasn’t bitching about something, I wouldn’t be a true driver, right?! I’ve got the buzz and so now I’m telling Arrow engineers what we need to go faster!”
The man who sits alongside Schmidt – the safety net, in terms of having conventional steering wheel and pedals – is his former IRL IndyCar rival Robby Unser (son of the legendary Bobby Unser) who himself has won Pikes Peak nine times. But Unser serves another purpose, too.
“It’s just ironic that I competed against Robby in ’97, ’98 and ’99 and now I compete with him alongside,” says Schmidt. “It’s much more than just having him there in case of emergency. He’s really helped push the development forward and push my performance forward because we speak the same language. It’s very frustrating to tell the engineers everything you want to do regarding feedback on the car’s behavior without being able to use your hands. So when I tell Robby that I need something, he knows how to translate that and tell them what I need in terms of adjustments.
“So we’re really just two peas in a pod. He enjoys pushing me, and helping me to get the most out of the whole experience.”
In the final results last Sunday, Schmidt finished 74th out of 79 in the autocross, 45th of 73 in the speed stop, and a highly impressive 6th out of 14 in the GTS class around the road course. For Sam himself, of course, none of that is good enough because at 56 years of age, he remains a highly competitive animal. You just know he’s going to keep on honing his technique and pushing the Arrow engineers to the nth degree, poring over the rulebook for any series in which he competes to see what mods can be made to a Corvette C8 to make it an even more formidable weapon.
But he’s also aware of the impact that this ongoing project can have, something more important than the adrenaline rush. Truth is, he and Arrow are providing inspiration for anyone similarly disabled.
“Yeah, this truly shows what can be done,” Schmidt agrees. “It’s not just driving on the street. This is driving for performance. Everyone else at this competition can use their hands and their feet and yet we’re going head to head with them.
“And it definitely shows that this technology is reliable. I’m putting my life in Arrow’s hands and I feel fine about it; it’s becoming second nature. So if we can help show others what’s possible, then that’s great.”
Photo by: Arrow McLaren SP