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'A Curve in the Road'

Former IRL Driver and Pepperdine Graduate Sam Schmidt Adjusts to Life as a Quadriplegic After January Crash

April 23, 2000|TIM BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. LOUIS — It was dusk Saturday, so when Sam Schmidt turned his head to the left, the light outside his window had dulled, the green on the leaves of the massive oak tree wasn't as brilliant and the brick on the building across the street was not as red.

It was dinner time, so when he turned his head to the right, the chicken that a friend had pushed away for him grew colder and a little less appetizing.

Straight ahead, over toes Schmidt hasn't felt since he became a quadriplegic on Jan. 6, a 15-inch television showed Al Unser Jr. winning the Vegas Indy 300.

In a 15-by-20-foot room on the second floor of the Barnes-Jewish Hospital, the race felt absolutely as vivid as Schmidt, 35, remembered it. After all, he won it last year, in September, less than four months before the terrible crash and the spinal cord damage and the heroic feats that brought him back to life.

A very different life.

The defending champion watched Saturday from a neat, white bed, his head propped on a pink-and-blue plaid pillow, his arms stretched at his sides and placed on white pillows, his legs pulled straight before him.

Over the bed, a sign read: "No Smoking in Bed," and over the television, smiling from a photograph, were his wife, Sheila, and his children, 2-year-old Savannah and 10-month-old Spencer. They are sitting in front of a Christmas tree, the picture taken maybe two weeks before Schmidt left their home in Henderson, Nev., for the Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Fla.

On Saturday evening, Sheila gathered the children to return to an apartment 30 minutes from the hospital. When they disappeared down the hallway, Schmidt said, "They are the first things that enter my mind. The kids come in here every day and they don't recognize the disability. I'm just their dad. Dad's here and not at home, and pretty soon we'll all go home. That unconditional love is pretty special. That's a big part of my motivation to get well. If nothing else, I'd love to hold them again, play with them."

While racing has stirred an unusual excitement in the family, it also has left the Schmidts a hug or two short.

In 1974, Marv Schmidt, Sam's father, crashed during an off-road race in Baja. The impact caused neurological damage similar to that found in stroke victims, and it was years before Marv could speak. He still does not have full use of his right arm, but otherwise he functions well.

More than 25 years later, during an Indy Racing League open test with his father trackside, Sam Schmidt's car hit a wall while traveling backward at 160 mph. His spinal cord was damaged, though fortunately not severed, as were vertebrae.

Schmidt believes he would have died if not for the IRL-trained medics on the scene. They pulled him from the wreckage, revived him after perhaps three minutes and put him on a helicopter to Orlando Regional Medical Center. Schmidt, who the year before had replaced driver Arie Luyendyk on the Treadway Racing team, was in intensive care for 25 days, many of which he does not remember.

In the aftermath, family and friends gathered at Schmidt's bedside and cheered the progress, when he first breathed on his own, when he shrugged his shoulders, when he stayed with torturous physical therapy for five more minutes.

"The family, his mother, Judy, Marv, they've been as strong as Sam has," Sheila said. "We all have the hope that more will come. We haven't given up hope that there will be more."

Already, he has feeling where he once didn't. He has experienced muscle movement halfway down his back, and also into the tops of his biceps and triceps.

"It's a curve in the road," he said. "We've got to deal with it and try to figure out what's in store for the future. I'm not sure, because I'm not sure what I'm going to regain, physically. You don't know what the future's going to hold, so you just have to go with it."

Not four months into his new future, he watched someone else run his race, win his race. It did not bother him. In fact, he shrugged.

"I'm not quite sure why that is, but I think it's because I don't have any regrets," said Schmidt, a colorful IRL personality whose home near Las Vegas and boomerang-style sideburns had earned him the nickname Elvis. "We all accept the risk. We can't afford to think about it that often. If you think about what the risks are, you shouldn't be driving the car."

Schmidt was 10 when his father was injured. Sam had been racing motorcycles since he was 5, but that ended with his father's accident, and he grew up in Sylmar playing mainstream sports such as football. He attended Village Christian High in Sun Valley and then Pepperdine, where he earned a degree in business administration and later an MBA in international finance.

Not long after graduation Sam's interest in racing was rekindled by an uncle, and in short time he bought his first race car for $15,000. By 1995, he was racing professionally and two years later he drove in the Indianapolis 500 for the first time.

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