Foundation For Success
February 5, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Schmidt, a driver-turned-team owner in the Indy Racing League, was seriously injured in a practice crash at Walt Disney World Speedway in January 2000. His injuries left him paralyzed from the shoulders down and ended his promising racing career.
A few months after his crash, Schmidt formed the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, an organization designed to help individuals overcome spinal cord injuries and other debilitating illnesses by facilitating scientific research, medical treatment, rehabilitation and technology advances.
“The big picture is all I’ve ever wanted to do is win the Indy 500,” Schmidt said, “and hopefully we can do that at some point as an owner. The immediate goal is to try raise awareness and raise dollars for the foundation so I can get out of this darn chair.
“And that’s kind of a more important goal because it affects me, but it’ll also affect thousands of other people. I’m pretty pumped up about that.”
Inspired in part by wheelchair-bound Formula One owner Frank Williams, Schmidt entered the IRL as a team owner last season with driver Davey Hamilton. The team, Sam Schmidt Motorsports, serves as not only a vehicle to raise awareness for Schmidt’s foundation, but also as a way for Schmidt to stay in racing.
“When I got hurt, I didn’t really have the option of just sitting in bed and watching TV for the rest of my life,” Schmidt said. “There has to be a way to fix this deal. As I got more into it, it’s not just 10,000 or 20,000 people with this injury. There are several hundred thousand that we can affect through our research. That’s got me motivated to find a cure for this thing.
“It really does take a lot of effort to do the work. It takes me, on average, 2 to 2 1/2 per day just to get up and take a shower and get in my chair. There’s not really any other thing that I can find to do that motivates me to go through that process more than racing. I want to race and I want to win races. More importantly, I want to win the Indy 500. That type of motivation is what keeps me going. It’s a nice platform for us to draw awareness to the foundation and try to raise funds for that, as well.”
The funds Schmidt raises go toward supporting research and helping people overcome their spinal-cord injuries. In August, for example, Schmidt’s foundation donated $50,000 to Washington University School of Medicine’s stem-cell research program.
His IRL team helps Schmidt advertise his cause, but he also has other ways to spread the word. He has planned one primary fund-raiser for this year – May 13 at Morton’s Steakhouse in Indianapolis - and has several smaller events on tap.
“We have one major gala event during the month of May that brings the racing community together,” Schmidt said. “We have a couple of golf tournaments throughout the year. That winds up raising probably about one-third of the money that we raise every year.
“We’re really going to step up the efforts this year to tap into corporate charitable giving. We’re starting to get a lot of leads through the racing program and through other people for different programs that are corporate-generated and that’s where we think we can raise quite a bit of funds this year.”
The Sam Schmidt Foundation also offers grants to people for equipment and rehabilitation that might not be covered by insurance. But one of the organizations most satisfying programs, Schmidt said, involves bringing injured people to the races.
“We’re going to have a hospitality program that will invite patients and their families out to the track on qualifying days and on the race weekend to see what we do and to get an experience that they possibly can’t have any other way,” Schmidt said.
Anthony Lazzaro, driver of Schmidt’s No. 99 Dallara-Aurora, said he’s happy to be a part of the Schmidt’s program.
“If you can turn racing into a good thing for other people, so much the better,” Lazzaro said. “To me it’s going to be a good situation all the way around. I look forward to the opportunity of meeting people.”
Lazzaro raced alongside Schmidt in the Hooters Pro Cup Series in 1995. But now he’s racing for Schmidt, and he would love to be able to get that Indy 500 win that Schmidt so dearly wants.
“The grand prize is the Indy 500, the biggest race in the world,” Lazzaro said. “He’s put together all the ingredients that I need. Using the guys at Treadway to run the Sam Motor Sports team is taking it to the next level. Those guys have been around since the IRL’s inception and they know what it’s like to win races.
“We have the package, I believe, to do that.”