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Schmidt finds his inspiration

Paralyzed ex-driver starts IRL team after talking with owner Frank Williams, another paralyzed ex-driver.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2001


The conversation lasted only a few minutes, but its message lingers.

Frank Williams made it a point to meet Sam Schmidt while in Indianapolis for the U.S. Grand Prix in September. Paralyzed in an automobile crash in 1986, the Formula One team owner wanted to deliver a message to the 36-year-old.

"He just basically encouraged me to do whatever I want and if that entails getting back into racing as an owner, there's really no limitations, there's no reasons I shouldn't be able to," said Schmidt, paralyzed from chest down in a crash during an IRL test session 16 months ago in Orlando.

"We kind of talked about the process of getting around and stuff, not so much the actual bit of running a race team or whatever. He just said, "You've still got your brain and that's about all you need to run a team.' "

So that is what Schmidt did.

Though he still has about 36 hours of physical therapy each week, he started his Indy Racing team in February.

"My passion the last 10 years was to be a driver in the Indy 500 and have a shot at winning the Indy 500," Schmidt said this week. "Now this is kind of the second-best thing."

The No. 99 Dallara-Aurora with IRL veteran Davey Hamilton behind the wheel will make its second start of the season in the Grand Prix of Miami on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"I'll say one thing for sure," Hamilton said. "Sam's determination as an owner, I feel, is definitely the same as his determination as a race driver because he wants to win. He doesn't want to be just another owner out there. He wants to be an owner that goes out and wins races and is a threat, week in and week out like a Ganassi, a Penske, a Panther or a Foyt. That's what he wants to be."

The race team not only keeps Schmidt involved in the sport, but it has given him a way to help others with spinal cord injuries.

The Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation raises money for research, new equipment for rehabilitation and helps pay bills of spinal cord patients.

"I kind of look at it as an opportunity that I would regret not doing if I didn't do everything possible to try and raise the awareness," Schmidt said. "I'm in the position to where I was a driver and a lot of people knew me and looked up to me."

And as a former driver, he knew exactly what he wanted in a race team. Schmidt compiled a five-page list of everything that needed to be done at the outset.

"I have a very high level of expectation as far as appearance and as far as the way I want things to be and the way I want things to look," he said. "Because I can't obviously be back at the shop and do the mechanical work myself, I had to find people that I could trust to do that at the level I want it done."

A good friend of Schmidt's because they both live in Las Vegas, Hamilton became a free agent of sorts after plans with Treadway-Hubbard Racing fell apart before the start of the season.

The 38-year-old chose to wait, however, before he approached Schmidt about driving.

"I just thought, "Well, I'll get back to Vegas and give him a call,' " Hamilton said. "So a few days later I called him up and he said he'd been meaning to call me as well. I said, "Well, what have you got going?'

"At that point, he had some drivers with money to consider that were good drivers with some sponsorship backing them. I had no money, but I did have the help of the Treadway-Hubbard team giving me some equipment to help this program out."

Schmidt, who won his only career IRL race while driving for Treadway Racing in 1999, thought about the added assistance from Treadway-Hubbard Racing and chose Hamilton.

"The phone was blazing from drivers that wanted to ride," Schmidt said. "I just think it worked out pretty good for me anyway just because we needed a driver that's stable and capable of finishing races and somebody that has a good fan following. I think we tapped that all in Davey. He's helped us with our marketing efforts and he's helped us be instantly accepted as far as the team goes."

The announcement was made 16 days before the season-opening Pennzoil Copper World 200 in Phoenix.

"Fortunately they've (Treadway-Hubbard) made good and probably put me in every bit as good, if not better, situation than I was before," Hamilton said. "I guess everything works out in a good way."

Hamilton's credibility lies in the fact he is the only driver to start all 44 Indy Racing events since the series inception in 1996.

He's been a consistent finisher in the points standings -- second in 1997-98 -- but victory has eluded him.

Hamilton finished 12th at Phoenix.

"I want to win and we plan on winning actually, but it's not an everyday cross-my-mind thing," he said. "I think that we can and I think that we're going to put ourselves in some positions to win and hopefully we can just capitalize on it at that point.

"I know we're going to win. I just feel the confidence that we're going to do that. I just hope it's sooner than later."

Sam Schmidt

AGE: 36.

RESIDES: Las Vegas.

WIFE: Sheila.

CHILDREN: Savannah, Spencer.

SAM SCHMIDT FOUNDATION: www.samschmidt.org.

DRIVING HIGHLIGHTS: Started 27 Indy Racing events. ... Competed in the Indianapolis 500 three times; best finish was 26th in 1998. ... Won two U.S. Formula 2000 races in 1996 and finished in top 10 nine times. Was inducted into the series Hall of Fame that year. ... Finished 34th in his first IRL event in 1997. ... Replaced Arie Luyendyk, who retired after the 1998 season, as Treadway Racing's top driver. ... Won his only career pole and race in September 1999 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Davey Hamilton

AGE: 38.

RESIDES: Las Vegas.

WIFE: Tracey.

CHILDREN: Davey Jr., Hailey Shea.

IRL CAREER BY THE NUMBERS: Races -- 44. Total laps -- 7,334. Best start -- 2 (Dover 1998, Las Vegas 1997). Best finish -- 2 (Atlanta 1998, Pikes Peak 1999). Top 5 -- 13. Top 10 -- 22. Races led -- 10. Laps led -- 76. Winnings -- $2,913,903.

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