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152mph hands-free – Schmidt's amazing four laps of Indy

Yesterday Sam Schmidt saw James Hinchcliffe claim his team’s second Indy 500 pole. But no less significant were Sam’s own four laps of IMS, resetting the speed record for semi-autonomous cars. David Malsher reports.

152mph hands-free – Schmidt's amazing four laps of Indy
Sam Schmidt and the ARROW Chevrolet Corvette
James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda pole winner, Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson
Sam Schmidt piloting the ARROW Chevrolet Corvette
Sam Schmidt piloting the ARROW Chevrolet Corvette
Sam Schmidt and the ARROW Chevrolet Corvette
James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda with Sam Schmidt
Sam Schmidt and the ARROW Chevrolet Corvette
Sam Schmidt piloting the ARROW Chevrolet Corvette
Sam Schmidt
Sam Schmidt piloting the ARROW Chevrolet Corvette
James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda with Sam Schmidt
Oriol Servia, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda watches Sam Schmidt piloting the ARROW Chevrolet Corvette
Sam Schmidt after driving Corvette on Long Beach racecourse.
Sam Schmidt drives at Indy

Driving a Corvette Z/06 to a top speed of 152mph, and lapping IMS at an average of 108.642mph, Sam Schmidt yesterday completed his own four laps of Indianapolis Motor Speedway without touching the steering-wheel.

Schmidt, who was rendered a quadriplegic after an Indy car shunt at Walt Disney World Speedway in 2000, two years ago set the semi-autonomous motorcar [SAM, appropriately] speed record in a 455hp Corvette Stingray, reaching a top speed of 107mph. Yesterday’s record was set in the Z/06 version of the Corvette which produces 650hp, again using a system created by Arrow Electronics. The company serves as primary sponsor on Schmidt Peterson’s #5 IndyCar driven by James Hinchcliffe, which four hours later claimed pole for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.

Yup, Sunday was a seriously big day for Sam, Arrow, and everyone associated with them.

The semi-autonomous system uses motion capture technology, as used in a lot of video gaming and involves Sam steering the car with his head, and blowing down a tube to apply the throttle, and sucking on it to apply the brakes.

However this is a radically different system from the one with which Schmidt set his original record, as Noel Marshall, lead engineer of a team of eight, explained to Motorsport.com.

“The original system used head tilt technology for gas and brakes,” says Marshall, “where Sam tilted his back to increase speed in 10mph increments. It took him a while to get up to speed and he didn’t have that direct control, but now he uses the sip-’n’-puff tube, he can nail that gas.

“We learned a lot from that first run, and it was Sam who suggested the change and we’ve found it is the most user-friendly of the many different systems we considered.”

Another engineer, Grace Doepker explains: “There is another change since the 2014 record. Sam has a new steering sunglasses-type headset, instead of the original baseball cap with sensors. The infrared cameras mounted on the Corvette’s dash can read the sensors on his sunglasses more accurately because the glasses are more rigid; we retro-fitted a regular pair of sunglasses with the markers and put them more in front of the camera. Sam sits very high in the car, so some of the sensors on the hat had been difficult to read.”

And if you’re wondering about unusual movements such as if Sam sneezed while driving, the motion cameras only detect left and right, so a typical sneeze movement back and forth wouldn’t be registered.

Arrow’s goals for this record attempt were “to showcase this technology that is essentially off-the-shelf,” says Marshall. “How do we continue to repurpose what’s already out there to help others? How do we take this further?’

“We want people to consider various ideas and think outside the car. Perhaps similar technology could be used by people who have become paralyzed to get them back into the workforce and able to work machinery that they might not otherwise have been able to do.”

Sam Schmidt’s perspective

“It’s amazing to me how similar this project has been to running a race team,” Schmidt tells Motorsport.com. “It’s truly been a team effort, where everyone gives input, everyone does research, and if we go better it’s a team effort, if we don’t, it’s a team effort.

“And it’s an example of technology as a whole. The only thing constant in technology is change. When you think about what your cellphone looked like five years ago, and look at it now, you’ve seen a lot of change. Well, this system has evolved from something that was a bit crude but effective in 2014, then it became something sophisticated enough that I could drive at Long Beach and Sonoma and feel comfortable on a road course, to now this where I can go substantially faster.

“Now obviously the car is a lot more powerful, that’s part of it, but more importantly, the advancements Arrow have made in the last six months are incredible. The previous system required total darkness in the car, but they’ve advanced the cameras so we can go from the baseball cap with beacons on it to sunglasses, which is a big help with accuracy and also comfort.

“And the switch to sip-‘n’-puff  technology for gas and brakes is a big help, a massive help. The amazing thing about it is that it is just like using your foot. If you just puff into the tube, it goes a little; if you blow hard, the thing launches! And the same with the brakes; very easy to modulate. So it’s very intuitive.

“The only drama that remains is that as a driver, you’re trained to look a long way ahead. So around here, someone like James [Hinchcliffe] as he goes into Turn 1, is already looking at Turn 2 because you’re gonna be there in a couple of seconds. But now I can’t do that, because if I do, I turn the car!

“So I have to stay very focused on just what’s directly ahead and I can tell you that is mentally exhausting – more mentally draining than driving a racecar!”

Schmidt notes the other big leap forward in technology demonstrated by Arrow’s setup is the speed with which the car’s steering can be adjusted.

“Before, when we wanted to go from oval to road course mode, it took a lot of changes to this and that,” he says. “Now we just push a button and we can go from road course mode where you can turn the car on a dime to oval mode where you desensitize and slow up the steering.

“I have 25 voice commands so I can start it up, put it in Drive, switch on the windshield wipers, operate the turn signals, and again that’s all new for this car.

“What Arrow have done is take off-the-shelf technology and brought it all together for a different purpose. To me, that’s what is so amazing about it.”

Schmidt also gives great credit to his passenger Robbie Unser, two-time starter in the Indy 500 and nine-time winner of the Pikes Peak Hillclimb, who was equipped with a set of manual controls as a safety-net should Sam encounter a problem.

“Having Robbie has been a huge benefit,” says Schmidt, “and I don’t just mean in the car during the laps. As you can imagine, in the two years between the runs, I was trying to explain to the engineers what I needed the car to do and there is nothing more frustrating than trying to explain driving methods and what you want a car to do when you don’t have use of your hands. It’s damn near impossible! So he knew everything I was trying to do.

“But he’s tested with me at Pikes Peak International Raceway, and the most important thing is that having him beside me gives me the opportunity to go faster because he would automatically know if I was in trouble. I’ve never been in trouble driving this car, but if something untoward occurred and I was with an engineer, by the time he or she realized it, it would be too late to save the situation.

“But he’s also helped develop the car when I wasn’t available to be around. He’s used the system as I do and he’s gotten quite good at it.”

And that, too, surely proves Arrow’s point: this technology can be learned and used by all.

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About this article

Series IndyCar
Drivers Sam Schmidt
Teams Arrow McLaren SP
Author David Malsher-Lopez
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