What do you do when a dream ends? If you’re Sam Schmidt, you embark upon an even bigger one. A motorcycle racer from the age of five, he went on to become Rookie of the Year at the USAR Hooters Pro Cup, and a star in the Indy Racing League. Then, in 2000, a crash left him paralyzed from the chest down.
As a boy, Schmidt fantasized about making it to the Indianapolis 500. Today, as the founder of the 10-year-old Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, he envisions finding a cure for spinal cord injury. Recently the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, impressed with his efforts, recognized his work by giving him the visionary leadership award. At the gala where he received the honor, one could watch surfers jockey slivers of waves in Surf Crazy—a film projected onto an exterior wall of the hotel, which proved to be a strangely appropriate backdrop for a conversation with this man who makes an art of navigating whatever comes his way.
AM: What made you start a foundation?
Sam Schmidt: When I was in the hospital after the crash, we were getting cards, letters and emails from the motor sports community saying, “What can we do?” I was fortunate to have good insurance and to have good family support and so we thought, “Why don’t we start a foundation, so they can do something to help…” At first I naïvely thought that there would be a direct correlation between effort and results, so I said, “Let’s hit it hard, let’s raise a bunch of money, and within a few years we can knock this thing out.” Obviously I was still under the influence of drugs at that point. (laughs)
AM: How did you come to work with the Reeve Foundation?
We had the honor of having Chris Reeve speak at one of our first fundraisers, around the Indianapolis 500 festivities. He came in to do our event and we spent a couple of days with him and his entourage, so to speak, and got to know him pretty well. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the scope of this injury and the scope of the industry was way out of our personal means. We’ve worked with the Reeve Foundation the last three or four years, after coming to the realization that the only way this and a number of other disorders is going to get fixed, is by everybody working together in a total collaboration across the industry.
AM: So your racing life started in California?
In racing, you don’t go from zero to the Indie 500 in one year; you go through go-carts and formula Fords. Then, if you’re lucky and have the right support, you make it to Indie cars. With building a foundation, it’s the same thing. One of the critical steps is funding. Our trademarked logo is “Racing to Recovery,” which symbolizes it all for me, because a cure for spinal cord injury is my checkered flag. Bam!
Schmidt: In a round about way. But I don’t think I’ve said it exactly like that, per se.
AM: It’s going in print now!
Schmidt: Great! But at the same time, I can’t help but think: Here we are sitting here at a Christopher Reeve event, and he’s not here. So we need a sense of urgency. Spinal cord injury affects a lot of people every day. When you add in the fact that there are so many disorders that are nerve-related, you’ve got even bigger numbers. Racing to Recovery addresses this, and we’re going to keep racing to the cure.
AM: You started your own race team?
Schmidt: Yes, and I’m proud of it. I started it to do something productive and to satisfy my passion for motor sports. It’s a nice complement to the foundation because it allows us to tap into the Hondas and the Firestones of the world for donations; they have been very supportive. On top of that, we’ve been very successful, winning three of the last four championships. Our drivers have won three times more races than any other team. So it’s been a good program and a lot of fun. It obviously takes a lot of effort to get to the track and do everything that we do. I want to be in a position to win every time we go out there. It’s not as good as winning as a driver, but it’s the second best thing.
AM: You get to go to Indianapolis.
Schmidt: Our foundation director, Ida Cahill, goes to a lot of the races; we have our Day at the Races program, which is part of our foundation. That’s one of the steps: to get people back on the job, earning a living, paying taxes, being productive members of society. So we bring mainly newly injured folks to the track and show them what I’ve been able to do postinjury, understanding that I had good resources and a good support system. It demonstrates that if you put your mind to it, you can do it, especially when 80 percent of them are paraplegics. I look at them and say, “Hey, I’d take your situation in a heartbeat.”
It’s a real VIP deal. They get lunch in the infield, go to the garage and see all the drivers. They get autographs, the whole nine. But to me, the main thing about it is just getting them out of the hospital and showing them what’s possible.
Cahill: The program is one of our big ones because we’re able to touch individuals. We get soldiers who come out who have not yet left the VA hospital, and don’t want to leave because they don’t want to face the world in a wheelchair. Yet after they’ve been to our program, the nurses often come back and tell us, “This changed their lives dramatically.” It’s a very rewarding program, and the drivers and team owners are wonderful.
AM: What other successes are you hearing from the field?
Cahill: The Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation College Scholarship fund awarded its first scholarship to a fellow who actually works for the Standing Chair Company, which, as you might imagine, is a wheelchair that helps individuals stand up. He’s going back to finish his degree and then probably will go on to get an advanced degree in psychology. He was thrilled to receive the scholarship.
Schmidt: We’ve received countless email, often from a patient’s caregiver or family that says, “Johnny was depressed. He wouldn’t do therapy. He was a wreck in rehab, had no motivation whatsoever, and now he’s seen what you guys are doing with a much higher-level injury, and he’s no longer feeling sorry for himself. He now has hope.” I mean we get hundreds of those types of emails.
One story that sticks in my mind is from a guy from Indiana, who worked for Delphi as an engineer. He went to the Indianapolis 500 regularly for 30 years, never missed an Indy 500, in fact. Then he became paralyzed and didn’t leave his house for over two years—until he came to our race event. Now he’s gung-ho. I think he might even be back working for Delphi. There’s a handful of those types of stories which are really inspiring to me because these are real people living real lives. It’s not pie in the sky; we’re making a difference.
Cahill: One of the last races that we did we had this young kid who was still in rehab. He must have been 16 or 17, and had a body cast on. He went around, and at the end of the day the drivers had signed his body cast. He said, “Oh, I would just love to have Sam sign it.” I said, “If your nurse and everybody can get it off, Sam will sign it.” So Sam signed it and he said he’s going to have it mounted on his wall when he doesn’t have to wear it anymore.
AM: How did Sam come to receive this award?
Cahill: They respect him for everything that he does, and how hard he works, along with our collaboration with the Reeve Foundation. They wanted to honor him as a visionary who doesn’t sit still and is out there at the forefront trying to help people.
Schmidt: I think it’s a great honor. But I don’t do it for the awards, I do it to get out of this chair. Chris was the visionary; he was the one who was not afraid to rock the boat with researchers. He and Dana were true leaders. In fact, I really don’t think I’d be alive here today if he had not been paralyzed five years before me. Because there were doctors who were motivated by his goals and his aspirations, and those same doctors not only got me off the vent, but gave me hope as well.
AM: Ida, what do you see in the future?
Cahill: One of the things that we’re pretty excited about, is the fact that President Obama has said that one of the first things he’ll do is to roll back all the restrictions on stem cell research, which can’t hurt.
There are people who are leaving this country to go to India, China, Portugal, and have procedures done that are questionable. We think people should have the right to have a procedure done in the U.S.
AM: We lost a lot of ground to other countries; there were scientists who left to work abroad.
Cahill: Foundations like ours provide the seed money for these young investigators’ research, and if it proves successful, then they can take the papers they publish and apply to the National Institutes of Health. That’s where the real money comes from.
AM: Anything else that you’d like to share?
Schmidt: I’m really excited about what the next few years may hold. There are so many things going on internationally. I’m excited that as a country, we may be given an opportunity to catch up, and if there’s one thing I want to express, it’s that people can stay in shape and lead healthy and active lives, even after a spinal cord injury, or any disorder for that matter. But you’re not going to be able to take advantage of the research if it comes down the pipeline and you’re not in shape and ready for it.
In all of our programs, we encourage people to stay in shape and apply themselves, because if you’re in the hospital, you just don’t know what you’re capable of doing, and a lot of times there aren’t people around to encourage you. But hope is out there. The checkered flag is in sight.
edited by Karen Leventhal — Leventhal is director of the Tarjan Center Service Inclusion Project at UCLA