Driving a car once came naturally to Sam Schmidt. Not just driving to work or the supermarket, but driving an IndyCar at well over 200 mph. But Schmidt, who earned his first career win and finished fifth in the IndyCar standings in 1999, suffered a testing accident the following winter that rendered him a quadriplegic.
Although he has since enjoyed considerable success as co-owner of Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports, winners of several IndyCar Series races and half a dozen IndyLights championships, Schmidt’s most remarkable achievement came when he returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2014 as a driver, lapping the speedway at speeds in excess of 100 mph in a Corvette. More important than the speed, Schmidt was in control of his Corvette, thanks to the SAM (SemiAutonomous Motorvehicle) technology developed by Colorado-based ARROW Electronics.
“It’s one of those amazing projects you’re proud to be a part of,” Schmidt says. “Arrow called us to see if we would drive the car. At the time I didn’t think it would be possible to do something like that in seven months . . . but they did it. The technology was not nearly as advanced as what we have now, but that’s the pace of technology. You have to start somewhere; you have to do some trial and error, and then you have to improve it and keep improving it.”
Indeed. Initially Schmidt wore a baseball cap equipped with position sensors that enabled him to steer the car by tilting his head to the left and right. He worked the throttle and brakes through a straw-like tube – blowing into the tube to accelerate and biting on that same tube to apply the brakes.
In less than a year, the SAM technology had advanced to the point where Schmidt progressed from driving the Corvette around the four virtually identical turns of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to lapping the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach street and the Circuit of the America’s natural terrain road course with their left and rights, fast, medium and slow speed corners.
What’s more, last December Schmidt joined a variety of professional race drivers from NASCAR, IndyCar, sports cars, V8 Supercars and even the NHRA competing online in the annual iRacing Pro Race of Champions on the virtual Watkins Glen International road course. While there was nothing on the line but egos, and no physical danger to the participants, the significance of sim racing on the same track with more than two dozen other top pros was not lost on Schmidt.
“In terms of demonstrating the SAM technology, competing in the iRacing Pro Race of Champions last year was even a step further than doing laps on an empty race track,” says Schmidt. “Plus it was was a helluva lot of fun. I can’t wait to do that again.”
A key factor in that progress was the ability of ARROW and Schmidt to test the SAM controls using sophisticated simulation technology, specifically the iRacing.com online motorsports simulation service coupled with a full motion driving simulation device developed by CXC Simulations. The combination of iRacing’s precision models of race tracks and race cars (including a Corvette C6.R) and the realistic forward and lateral g-forces generated by the CXC simulator were the ideal platform for Sam to participate in the development of SAM.
“We’ve been using iRacing, number one because of its realism and its popularity with professional race drivers,” says ARROW applications engineer Will Pickard. “We also purchased a three (video) screen Motion Pro simulator from CXC. Then we created a duplicate of the SAM car sensing and control system that’s in the Corvette and bolted it onto the back of the sim.
“What we do with iRacing covers two main areas of development. One is training for Sam. He has used the simulator both for being able to race other drivers in an online environment such as the iRacing Pro Race of Champions and also for getting things like turn recognition, training for courses he’s not familiar with like Long Beach.
“The equipment has transferred basically flawlessly from the simulator to the real car and vice versa.” – Sam Schmidt
“The second part is we actually use the simulation to test the sensing hardware that goes in the car,” he continues. “We use identical hardware on the simulator and on the car itself. Our testing and development procedures test-out new technologies, different ways of controlling the car using your head, your mouth and so forth in the game and then you can take it outside and put it on the vehicle. It’s been very helpful in our development.”
“Every step of the way we try it on the simulator,” Schmidt echoes, “The equipment has transferred basically flawlessly from the simulator to the real car and vice versa.”
Those steps have produced remarkable advances. Schmidt was eager to go beyond the initial objective of simply doing laps of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway by driving more or less down the middle of the wide track. He wanted to drive the racing line and do so aggressively. So the ARROW engineers modified the directional/steering component of SAM so the Corvette goes where Sam is looking – installing the sensors in sunglasses – rather than the potentially dis-orienting procedure of tilting his head left and right.
The advances not only enabled Schmidt to get around Long Beach and CoTA but to lap the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 150 mph in a simulated four lap qualifying there in May. Perhaps even more amazing, in June (with a little help from his friend Robby Unser) Schmidt completed a run up the famed Pikes Peak Hillclimb where, needless to say, the consequences of an “off” can be instantaneous – and severe.
“The accomplishment of going up Pikes Peak was not lost on anybody,” Schmidt says. “We didn’t go there to race, but also we didn’t want to be the slowest car – and we weren’t. So that was a pretty big accomplishment and we owe a lot to Robby because he knows the mountain blindfolded and I couldn’t have done it without him.”
Indeed, SAM 2.0 has advanced to the point where Schmidt is starting to lean on the Corvette pretty hard.
“We’ve got the system to where Sam feels like he can begin pushing the car to its dynamic limits,” Pickard says. “So from where we started – very conservative, going around the oval at a decent speed but keep it between the lines – we’re now at a point where – let’s brake late, turn in, hit that apex and accelerate out to the edge of the track. Sam wants to push that car to its limit and we’re getting to the point where it’s possible.”
Next on the agenda? Sam and SAM will take-on Sonoma Raceway’s challenging road course in mid-September during the GoPro Grand Prix weekend, the season finale to the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series. There may not be 1000 foot drop offs on the edge of the track ala Pikes Peak, but Sonoma’s 12 turn, 2.385 mile roller coaster of a road course features more than 150 feet of elevation change each lap.
And while the racer in Schmidt will be focused on turning some pretty quick lap times at Sonoma, ARROW and Schmidt have their eyes on even bigger things in the future . . . and not just a return engagement in the 2016 iRacing Pro Race of Champions in December.
“The long term plan is to make the technology available to help people in their everyday lives,” says Schmidt. “Not just driving cars but in the home and work environment, particularly to help people who have become disabled get back to work. The applications have turned out to be much broader than perhaps the folks at ARROW originally anticipate and that’s been a pleasant surprise.”