Sam Schmidt’s promising IndyCar career ended 14 years ago when his race car crashed into a wall, but he retook the wheel during preparations for this year’s Indianapolis 500 to demonstrate the latest in automotive wizardry.
Schmidt, a quadriplegic and longtime IndyCar team owner, cruised several times around the hallowed track at speeds exceeding 100 mph in a modified 2014 Corvette C7 Stingray that he controlled only with his head. The drive was a liberating moment for Schmidt. “I think the majority of my emotion driving the car came from the fact that it felt incredibly normal,“ he says.
During the exhibition, Schmidt wore a baseball cap outfitted with reflective infrared sensors that transmitted his head movements to a computer via several cameras throughout the car. He steered the car by turning his head left or right and accelerated by tilting his head backward. Stopping the car required Schmidt to bite down on a sensor inside his mouth. The on-board GPS system was set up with “virtual curbs” a meter from the edge of the track in case Schmidt’s racecar drifted and needed a slight correction.
This flawless journey around the track was historic but it also was a big moment for Schmidt. “For me it was kind of a full circle moment to be able to come back and drive around the speedway and check that off the bucket list,” he says.
The project couldn’t have happened without the collaboration between Arrow Electronics, Ball Aerospace, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, the Air Force Research Laboratory and Falci Adaptive Motorsports. Potential for this technology remains to be seen but Schmidt is optimistic for the future. “I hope that this technology continues to develop so that it will have applications in transportation, mobility and medical devices,“ he says.