How Race Car Driver Paralyzed in Crash Found 'Inspiration' in His Dad Who Was Similarly Paralyzed
Sam Schmidt's career was cut short in January 2000 after a serious car racing training accident left him a quadriplegic
When doctors told former race car driver Sam Schmidt he might not ever recover after a near-deadly crash, he says he looked to his family as "motivation."
Now, 20 years later, Schmidt tells PEOPLE that having his loved ones help him during his early recovery process was "amazing," especially his father, who was also paralyzed during a racing accident when Schmidt was 11.
On Jan. 6, 2000, Schmidt was taking part in a test session for the Indy Racing League at Walt Disney World Speedway when he "hit the wall" in a violent collision, leaving him a quadriplegic.
"[The doctors] didn't give me much of a chance to make it through the night, let alone the weekend," Schmidt recalls. "They said to my wife, 'Just, put him in a nursing home because he'll never get off the ventilator.' "
Schmidt, who at the time had a 2-month-old daughter and 6-month-old son, says "luckily [his] family didn't take that as the only option" and he went to a rehabilitation hospital in St. Louis where he got off the ventilator in just three weeks.
During his time in recovery, the former open-wheel driver says he looked to his father as his "inspiration" and his "hero."
"[Doctors] said [his father] would never walk or talk again. But through two years of intense outpatient physical therapy, he was able to walk and got his speech back," Schmidt says. "The only thing he didn't get with his right arm and he's 77 years old now living a full life."
"He still travels quite a bit, but that was what I had to look up to or challenge me," he continues. "And obviously being a race car driver, you're very competitive. And if he could do it, I can do it."
Not only did Schmidt have his family to lean on after his accident, but he says "the whole community rallied and offered support."
"People would visit and I got lots and lots of cards and letters from the fans. That was a part of the motivation process too," he adds.
Schmidt says he's also found motivation in his life by staying committed to helping others with similar disabilities.
"It takes two to two and a half hours to get up every morning. So you really need to find something that you're passionate about to make that all worthwhile," he explains.
Less than a year after his accident, Schmidt founded Conquer Paralysis Now, originally called the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, which is now the leading authority on spinal cord injury research and treatment.
"For the first 15, 16 years of the foundation, we devoted most of the resources to medical research and trying to solve problems for people with neurological disorders ... and we've had a great deal of success," he says. "But, a couple of years ago, it just kind of hit me that the reason I have lived longer than I was [supposed to] was mainly because of the physical routine that I keep up. And there really wasn't anything in Las Vegas doing anything collaborative or state-of-the-art rehabilitation. So at the end of 2017, we decided to create the DRIVEN Rehabilitation NeuroRecovery Center."
Schmidt says DRIVEN has a lot of "high-tech rehabilitation equipment from around the world," but the facility is about more than just the physical training.
"We address the psychological aspect of your situation because I think that's just so critical that you have that reason to get up every morning," he explains.
The former IndyCar driver has also been working with disabled U.S. veterans to help them receive proper treatment and encourage them to lead an active lifestyle.
"We want them to be able to get up every day. We want them to be able to do stuff with their kids. We want them to be able to go back to work if they can," he tells PEOPLE. "It's just a very collaborative effort to tear down any barriers. If a disabled veteran wants to go on with his life and do something special, we're going to help them do that."
Conquer Paralysis Now recently teamed up with the Disabled American Veterans and Vuse to offer and fund mobility solutions along with future vehicle donations for disabled vets across the country. Vuse recently announced a four-year commitment where the brand will provide a total of $4 million in this joint effort to “accelerate mobility.”
Schmidt, who drives his own modified Chevrolet Corvette smart racing car, is working to create mobility vans for disabled drivers and help "bridge the gap" until autonomous driving becomes a reality.
"If a guy who can't use his arms and legs at all can drive a Corvette at 190 miles an hour, then we should be able to figure out how to have a guy that's got much less disability, be able to drive a van or a Chevy Traverse or any other product," he says.
And while Schmidt is helping to change people's lives, he says he hopes he's inspiring his own children along the way.
"I want to show my kids that it can be done and they can do anything they put their mind to," he says. "But if it inspires others and motivates others too then so be it."
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