Quadriplegic Racer Hoons His 2016 Corvette Z06 With Jay Leno

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Ex-racer Sam Schmidt chauffeurs Jay Leno around the track in the world’s first semi-autonomous Corvette.

Sam Schmidt might have the most amazing life story in the racing world today. The former businessman went racing professionally at age 31, made three consecutive Indy 500 starts, and won an IndyCar race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. A devastating crash in 2000 left Schmidt a quadriplegic, but he pressed on as a lifelong gearhead. Today, he co-owns the Schmidt-Peterson Racing team in IndyCar, and in September 2016, Nevada issued him the world’s first semi-autonomous driver’s license.

Sam Schmidt's semi-autonomous Corvette Z06

In this episode of Jay Leno’s Garage, Schmidt takes Jay for a spin in his incredibly customized Z06 Corvette. With a battery of sensors developed by technology company Arrow, Schmidt can control the Z06 with a pressure tube in his mouth—blow air to accelerate, suck air to brake—and steer with the direction in which he’s looking.

Schmidt took the Z06 up Pikes Peak last year and even drove on a proper racetrack for the first time since his crash. His Nevada driver’s license lets him take it on the street and here, he takes Leno out for a spin near Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch in Nevada. He also opens up about just what kind of a difference driving can make for a quadriplegic.

“The biggest thing I didn’t realize was the overwhelming sense of normalcy,” Schmidt said. “For 17 years, there’s been very little in my life that I had 100 percent control over. Being in this car and driving is 100 percent under my control.”

ALSO SEE: The Power and Responsibility of Driving Someone Else’s Corvette

The approximate cost of outfitting a Z06 for this kind of duty comes in at seven figures. If that sounds prohibitive or only accessible for successful types, consider this: Most technologies start out with very high costs. As the technology gets refined, easier to replicate, and simpler to produce, we should expect that they’ll become more available.

That Schmidt and Arrow chose a Corvette for their platform is humbling, especially considering Schmidt’s IndyCar team runs Honda engines. But the racing heart in Schmidt’s chest remains unimpeded; he has taken the Z06 as fast as 185 miles per hour and is aiming for 200.

The story remains incredible with many chapters left to write, but we have no doubt this is the first step toward more control, inside cars and out, for quadriplegics. We couldn’t be happier to see the Corvette playing a huge part in it.

Eric Rood is a regular contributor to Corvette Forum and LS1Tech, among other auto sites.

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