FUTURE LOOKS BRIGHT FOR OPPORTUNISTIC SCHMIDT LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Jan. 19, 1999 -- A year ago, Sam Schmidt was selling sunglasses as he tried to maintain the financing needed to campaign a car with the Pep Boys Indy Racing League. ...
FUTURE LOOKS BRIGHT FOR OPPORTUNISTIC SCHMIDT
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Jan. 19, 1999 -- A year ago, Sam Schmidt was selling sunglasses as he tried to maintain the financing needed to campaign a car with the Pep Boys Indy Racing League. Now, his future is so bright he needs to wear a pair. Schmidt, a 34-year-old driver from Las Vegas, has placed himself solidly in the seat of departing superstar Arie Luyendyk, who retired from full-season competition in late 1998. Schmidt has been tabbed as the primary driver for the Sprint PCS-Treadway Racing entry that has become a mainstay on the Pep Boys Indy Racing League circuit, which opens its 1999 season Jan. 24 at the TransWorld Diversified Services Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway. It has been a whirlwind offseason for Schmidt, who thrilled onlookers with a sterling drive in the 1998 Pep Boys Indy Racing League finale in October at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Using an engine borrowed from a competi tor, Schmidt raced from 23rd starting position to finish second behind race winner Luyendyk. Schmidt's electrifying ride at Las Vegas propelled him into the spotlight as a talented driver able to compete with the best teams on the circuit. "Yes, I've had to stop a few times this winter and think about all that's happened," said the personable Schmidt. "Landing the ride with (team owner) Fred (Treadway) was actually the culmination of many discussions from some time ago, but it seemed like it all came together very, very quickly, almost enough to make my head spin." Schmidt spoke with Treadway as early as last August, hoping to land a ride in a second car along with Luyendyk. But Schmidt really didn't know what his chances were. On that sunny day in Las Vegas, as Luyendyk - and Treadway - watched as the dogged Schmidt charged through the pack and into their rearview mirrors, the tone of their future discussions changed forever. "The Las Vegas race sure didn't hurt my chances," Schmidt said. "I had talked with Fred, but so had just about every driver, I figured. But I knew after that race they would at least know my name." Now, Schmidt finds himself in a very different situation for 1999. Instead of worrying about funding, he now can devote all of his efforts toward his driving performance. At the same time, he is aware that the pressure could be great to fill Luyendyk's enormous shoes. "I really don't think of it as pressure," he said. "This is what I have always wanted to do, and this is what I've worked to put myself in a position to do. "If I don't perform now, then I shouldn't be here. It's as simple as that." Schmidt readily admits that his outlook has changed, in terms of being able to focus on driving, instead of raising money. "You still drive the car, that's no different ? but outside of that everything is different. I probably spent literally 80 percent of my time last season trying to find money, making sponsorship deals that would keep the team going. It's just a huge effort. "Now, I can really focus on what I need to do as a race driver, not on financial issues. "I really feel confident, with the package and the people we have with this team. The G Force chassis, Comptech Aurora engines, Firestone tires ? I feel like that's going to be the combination to beat this season." Another variable that Schmidt is excited about is his pairing with Jeff Britton, who has been elevated to team engineer after tutelage under Indy 500-winning engineer Tim Wardrop for the past few years. "Jeff is an eager guy, and very talented, and he's anxious to make a name for himself," Schmidt said. "He has a lot of great ideas. There's a lot of good chemistry here. "When they announced that I was going to be the driver this year, everybody on the team stayed on for 1999. That is a real confidence builder, because it makes me believe that they had faith that I could come in here and get the job done." Schmidt raced motorcycles as a young boy, but got completely out of racing for several years, choosing to focus on his education and a brief but successful career as a hospital administrator. But at 25, he began his quest to fulfil his lifelong dream of winning the Indianapolis 500. The strong finish at Las Vegas was just another step in that long journey. "When I was a kid, I never envisioned myself hitting a grand slam in the World Series, or anything like that," he said. "I always dreamed about Indy, pictured myself standing there in victory lane." He admits that whenever he thinks about that day at Las Vegas, he just can't stop smiling. "When I climbed out of that car that day ? not knowing that this deal would happen, not knowing about what the future held, just thinking about all the struggles the past two seasons?that day was phenomenal. "I felt like it proved that we could run well if we had the right opportunity." Now, opportunity is not a problem. He looks toward the looming Pep Boys Indy Racing League opener, and he prepares for what he hopes will be his breakthrough season. The dues have been paid. Now, Schmidt is ready to step up to the most promising situation thus far in his career. Smiling all the way.