Former professional race car driver, Sam Schmidt, took Jay Leno on a spin on a Nevada racetrack in his 2016 fully adapted and customized Chevrolet Z06 Corvette for an episode of Jay Leno’s Garage. The ride, which was captured in the video below, was “the epitome of ‘If you can dream it, find the right people, find the resources, it can be done,’” Schmidt told Leno.
Schmidt, 57, who dreamed of racing since childhood, left his career in business pursue professional car racing at age 31 – late by industry standards. He quickly rose to become “Rookie of the Year,” and went on to race the Indianapolis 500 – three years consecutively.
But, his impressive five-year career came to an end when he sustained a spinal cord injury after a high-speed racing accident resulting in quadriplegia. Schmidt is paralyzed from the neck down.
From that point on, Schmidt became determined to get back behind the wheel. “For 17 years, there’s been very little in my life that I had 100% control over, but being in this car and driving is 100% under my control,” he said.
He worked with engineers at Arrow Electronics to design an adaptive Corvette controlled by only mouth and head motions. Schmidt uses a head-tilt sensor to steer, a sip-and-puff device to accelerate and brake, and voice commands to switch gears. It currently reaches a top speed of 185 miles-per-hour (mph), and the goal for 2017 is to get his Z06 over 200 mph.
The experience of driving again was life changing for Schmitt. “I anticipated the anxiety and nervousness of getting in a car again, but I think the biggest thing I did not realize is the amazing, overwhelming sense of normalcy.”
As for Leno’s experience in the passenger seat, he said “for folks like Sam, victory isn’t about crossing the victory line first, it’s also about having the patience, optimism, and determination to get back behind the wheel.”
Sam Schmidt is the founder of the Conquer Paralysis Now, which funds research towards finding a cure for paralysis.