IRL: Schmidt/Hearn: Their best shot for Indy

You might think that someone like Sam Schmidt, who lost the use of his arms and legs in a racing accident wouldn't be as keen on the sport, but it's apparent that Schmidt is "once a driver, always a driver" and intends to keep it that way. Once...

You might think that someone like Sam Schmidt, who lost the use of his arms and legs in a racing accident wouldn't be as keen on the sport, but it's apparent that Schmidt is "once a driver, always a driver" and intends to keep it that way.

Once again, the Nevadan will team up with his neighbor Richie Hearn for this year's Indianapolis 500 Mile Race but this time they're doing it right, both Hearn and Schmidt agree. The Menards Infiniti Pro Series team owner usually makes his Indy 500 plans closer to the race but this year that's changed.

Richie Hearn will have at his disposal two ex-Roger Penske Panoz Indy cars for the month of May as Schmidt has purchased the rolling stock from the all-time winningest Indy team owner's stable. Hearn will use the Panoz/Chevrolet/Firestone package for the 89th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, giving Chevrolet yet another opportunity to take home its own "baby" Borg Warner trophy.

"For the past seven or eight years I've been involved in IndyCar Series racing and my passion has always been the 500," Schmidt acknowledged. "I wanted to get there as a driver and had my best opportunity in 1999 but didn't close the deal. This year presents another great opportunity for us."

Schmidt's entry carries the sponsorship colors of Meijer Stores, the 71- year-old Midwest grocery store chain that counts 163 freestanding stores among its assets. Coca-Cola will also sponsor the #70 entry, hooking up with Meijer as it has the last few years. "I'm happy to be with Meijer," Schmidt stated. "They did such good work with Arie [Luyendyk] and Robby Gordon the past few years and I think we're blessed to have their backing."

Schmidt is building on his experience with the Indy Racing League's Menards Infiniti Pro Series, where he's fielded the most recent champion, Thiago Medeiros and this year counts three rookies on his roster of drivers. While Schmidt might prefer to be in the IndyCar Series, but the costs have become prohibitive.

"You always want to race against the best at the top level," Schmidt explained, "but now more than even two or three years ago, you need the proper resources to race in Indy cars. In the Pro series, it's fun to watch drivers gain skills and I think of myself as a driver, even to this day, so I'm enjoying being more of a driver/coach than a team owner."

Hearn, accustomed to showing up at the start of Indy 500 practice with his helmet in hand is looking forward to participating when the gates open and practice starts this year. "This could be my best chance to win," he declared. "It's so hard to gain momentum when you get into a car at the last minute. You have to learn the car, the engine, the crew you're working with. At least this year I won't have to do that."

While the 34-year-old Hearn has been hoping to get into a fulltime IndyCar Series ride, he's been working with younger drivers coming up by owning a Star Mazda squad. "The team keeps me out there and I like to help youngsters, but I'm only 34 and I can still compete at this level on a fulltime basis."

The Henderson, NV native had his first run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1996 and finished third. After sporadic rides in League competition Hearn has become, against his wishes a specialist at Indy. This May 29th effort marks the fifth try for the Nevada neighbors to win at the Brickyard.

"This came as pretty much of a surprise to me," Hearn admitted. "I'm thankful to be coming in early to the Speedway this year. It'll be my first time on-track opening day since 1996 and I can't wait. Last year I had only 60 laps in our car prior to the start of the race."

Schmidt believes his Henderson pal Hearn "can get a car up to speed quickly and I know he can get the job done. Richie enjoys driving the Indy track and I think he's a great fit for our team. We've got great chemistry" - does the Henderson water have something to do with it? - "and in this environment you have to have chemistry in order to do a competitive deal," Schmidt emphasized.

The All-American lineup for this #70 Meijer/Coca-Cola Panoz/Chevy/Firestone entry doesn't escape either Schmidt or Hearn, who both realized Meijer wanted to have a US-born driver for their Indy car. In the two Nevadans, the made-in Georgia Panoz chassis, Chevrolet engines and Firestone tires, Meijer has its match.

"I think we can qualify and race up front, thanks to getting this head start," Hearn stressed. "I think Sam and I have gotten our best shot for victory this May."

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Richie Hearn , Sam Schmidt , Roger Penske