HEALED SCHMIDT EAGER TO RETURN TO DRIVER'S SEAT AT OPEN TEST
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2000 -- Indy Racing League driver Sam Schmidt is Y2K compliant. He made sure of that by driving a go-kart during the final week of 1999. And now it'll be a happy New Year for Schmidt, a Henderson, Nev., resident, on Jan. 5 when he finally climbs back behind the wheel of his Treadway Racing car during the Indy Racing League's second Open Test at Walt Disney World Speedway. The two-day test is the final warm-up for the Delphi Indy 200 season opener at the same 1-mile tri-oval Jan. 29. For Schmidt, it's been a tough 2½ months recovering from serious foot injuries suffered in a crash during the 1999 season finale at Texas Motor Speedway. He vowed then that he would be back for the season opener. "Basically, I'm getting back in a car," he said. "I've been a long time out." In order to regain the feel of speed and check out his reflexes, he took his 125cc shifter kart to a Las Vegas track and began putting the pedal to the metal. He said there was no pain in the foot, and he quickly regained his reactions. "Within about 10 laps I was running as quick as I ever had before," he said. "I was happy that there was no residual pain." Schmidt still has some swelling in the left foot. "I don't anticipate any additional pressure," he said. "My biggest goal this year is to win the (Indy) 500." Schmidt, the holder of a master's degree in business administration, led four laps at Indy last May before hitting the Turn 1 wall entering Lap 63. Schmidt has sat in his car at the Treadway shop in Indianapolis to get his seat fitted. He said the crew members have been working extremely hard in the offseason to update his 1999 car, and they are as excited as he is about actually doing some high-speed laps. The plans are for him to drive the '99 machine all of Wednesday and then climb into the 2000 car on Thursday. New teammate Robby McGehee has been testing the 2000 car and will drive it in the Delphi Indy 200. Schmidt doesn't have a primary sponsor at the moment, but hopes one will be acquired in time for him to switch to a 2000 car by the Las Vegas race on April 22. "I think I'll be feeling things out the first five laps, then I'll get down to business," he said. In the first Open Test in December at Orlando, defending league champion Greg Ray, Schmidt's close friend and serious speed challenger (they actually ran the exact same pole speed at the first Pikes Peak race last June), turned a top speed of 169.165 mph with the new 3.5-liter engine. That's about 2 mph slower than last year's pole speed with the 4.0-liter engine. Ray will return with Team Menard. Two-time Indy 500 champion Al Unser Jr. will make his Disney debut with Galles ECR Racing, and Jeff Ward will be unveiled as the new lead driver for A.J. Foyt. Rookies Sam Hornish Jr. and Doug Didero are among others who will participate. Schmidt will be joined by McGehee. Schmidt was selected in late 1998 to be the replacement driver for the departing Arie Luyendyk, a two-time 500 winner who drove only at Indy in '99 before retiring. Now McGehee, who finished fifth at Indy in his debut and was named Bank One Rookie of the Year last May, has stepped into the second Treadway car. Schmidt, 35, expects to work well with his new garage mate, who is 26. "I think it's good," Schmidt said about having McGehee as part of the team. "I've been fortunate in that every teammate I've had has been a positive. We can build from this and make it a positive for both of us." Schmidt's emotions ranged from the highest to the lowest in the final two races of 1999. He won both the pole and the race (each a first) at Las Vegas in front of friends and family, then wound up in the hospital following his crash at Texas. He's using the win as something to hang his helmet on entering the new season and not allowing the accident to diminish his enthusiasm for high-speed competition. "You just go along - most of us do - no matter how bad your results are," he said. "I'm ecstatic. It kind of got the monkey off my back. Both Mark Dismore (who won for the first time at the Texas season finale) and I will have more confidence this season." Schmidt calls the accident "just a bad deal." No one, he said, applied pressure to him to retire. "A few family members said, 'Do you really want to do this?''' he said. "Six or eight weeks went by fairly quickly. Seeing I wouldn't have any side effects, the biggest drag was waiting to get back in the car." Schmidt even found a bright spot evolving from the accident. "On the positive side," he said, "I got to spend a lot of time with the kids."