Allan Brewer, IndyCar Correspondent
IndyCar Team owner Sam Schmidt is no stranger to challenges. Paralyzed from the neck down in a racing accident at age 36, the Nebraska native has gone on to win multiple Firestone Indy Lights Series championships and put his mark on the Indianapolis 500 by taking pole in the most recent edition of the world’s greatest auto race. Now, with the help of reigning Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon, Schmidt has set his sights on a huge pot of gold in IndyCar’s season-ending event in Las Vegas.
Schmidt, wheel-chair bound since 2000, was paralyzed after an accident during testing at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Florida in preparation for the upcoming season. After five months in the hospital, and no longer able to pilot a race car, Schmidt turned his attention to running a race team and has never looked back. He has become the most successful team owner in Firestone Indy Lights by far with more than 46 race wins and four championships. The team has also put 12 cars into the Indianapolis 500 since 2001, including starting on pole in 2011.
I’m really excited about this opportunity and look forward to working with everyone at Sam’s team.
As testament to his desire to capture the $5 million reward for winning the final race at Las Vegas Speedway, ironically a race that Schmidt counts as his first-ever victory as a driver in the Indy Racing League (1999), the team has set regular driver Alex Tagliani aside for Wheldon at this weekend’s Kentucky Indy 300 at Sparta, Kentucky. The goal is to achieve maximum familiarity of driver with car and crew ahead of the season finale that will make or break a bold attempt on the October 16th IndyCar Challenge.
It’s not a completely unfamiliar scenario for Wheldon and Schmidt, however. The driver and crew, along with team principal Bryan Herta and his Bryan Herta Autosport organization, claimed the Borg Warner trophy at Indy only four short months ago. It was Wheldon’s second Indy 500 victory, and the only other race he has driven in the series this year.
“I’m really excited about this opportunity and look forward to working with everyone at Sam’s team,” said Wheldon of the reunion. “They were a large part of our winning effort in May, and I’ll do my best to get back to victory lane.” Though the car actually belonged to Schmidt, it was entered by Herta and the two shared engineering talent and garage space throughout the weeks leading up to the 500-mile race at Indy.
The payoff is significant for Schmidt if he and Wheldon can pull of a victory in Las Vegas. On the table is a purse of $2.5 million for the driver and an equal amount for a lucky fan. The only catch is Wheldon has to start at the back of the field. The catch for the fan is he or she has to win the contest being held online or via text message entry process to qualify for the sole chance at the huge prize.
Prior to Wheldon taking the seat of the No. 77 car on the Kentucky oval, Wheldon was on the 2.5 mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway today testing the 2012 Dallara. "We'll wait till (Sept. 29) to put the big numbers down. We have to manage our expectations. I know everybody wants to see huge speeds, but it's about doing what's right for the car. This is our final test, and it's important that we learn enough so when the customers get their cars we feel we've given them something they'll be very happy with," he said.
The race at Kentucky Speedway goes green at 3 PM EDT this Sunday with live television coverage on the VERSUS cable network and audio broadcast over the airwaves or internet streaming via the Indianapolis Motor Speedway radio network.
The Las Vegas IndyCar World Championships will be broadcast live on ABC television at 3 PM EDT on Sunday, October 16th, with radio and internet streaming on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway network.