Indy 500: Sam Schmidt talks Vuse initiative, helping disabled veterans

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Vuse, an e-cigarette brand that serves as a partner of the Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar team, recently announced a multi-year, multi-million-dollar commitment to provide the resources and opportunities for disabled veterans to achieve what they previously thought might be impossible.

The goal of this initiative is to deliver the custom resources and opportunities needed for disabled veterans to be inspired and to accelerate their lives, giving them the freedom they need and the ability to get out into the world.

Ahead of the Indy 500, we spoke with Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt about this initiative and what it means to him specifically, given that he was left a quadriplegic following a practice crash at Walt Disney World Speedway back in January of 2000.

“This is absolutely the perfect storm for me in that I have my IndyCar team,” he said. “I’ve got an incredible team out of Indianapolis. It gets me up every morning having the opportunity to compete against guys like Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti, and trying to win Indy 500s, trying to win championships through that conduit.

“But then my other bigger goal in life is to conquer paralysis for those with disabilities, and I’ve been working on that for quite some time. Vuse came up with the idea to help disabled veterans get back into life. I told them my story of ‘why do you keep pushing so hard after 20 years?’, ‘what gets you up every morning?’, and frankly it’s I’ve found something that I’m passionate about to make all that effort worthwhile.”

Schmidt went on to discuss the positive impact that this initiative can have on veterans themselves.

“Disabled veterans have some crazy statistics like 20 suicides a day and when I visit with them at the VA, a lot of them just want to go back to work,” he added. “They want to be more active. They want to put food on the table. So Vuse is stepping up with a multi-year, multi-million-dollar program, with Conquer Paralysis Now and Disabled American Veterans (DAV).

“The whole goal and the hope is to fill in the gaps. The veterans do get benefits from the government, such as vans and living aids and assistance, but they don’t get everything they need. They don’t get the physical rehabilitation, they don’t get the mental rehabilitation. There are a lot of things that go into just giving somebody that additional training. This program is all about figuring out a way to get disabled veterans to achieve their goals out of the military. It can be athletics, it can be any number of things; I really applaud Vuse for stepping up and supporting the program.”

Schmidt himself has already been deeply involved in helping those who have been affected by paralysis for many years, as he established the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation and currently serves on the board of directors for BraunAbility.

He told us what he believes is the most rewarding aspect of helping those who are in a similar situation to the one he has been in for two-plus decades.

“Bottom line is I realize that I have incredible support,” said the 56-year-old native of Lincoln, Nebraska. “I have great family and the motorsports community behind my rehabilitation, and most people don’t have that. So we founded that organization in an effort to help people that aren’t as fortunate as I am.”

Despite his situation, Schmidt was able to get back behind the wheel of a modified car a few years ago.

“It was almost indescribable in a sense of it was my lifelong goal, to compete at Indianapolis [Motor Speedway],” Schmidt said. “I was fortunate to do it in 1997, 1998 and 1999. After my accident, I didn’t know what I’d be able to do. I was on a ventilator, and I just kept working hard, and this project came along.

“There were a lot of emotional moments to say the least. But the biggest thing I did not anticipate was the sense of normalcy, because I was in control. I was driving, gas, brakes, steering. I did it all myself, 107 miles per hour, and eventually 190. But it’s the control factor. There’s really nothing in my life on a daily basis that I have control over. So being able to do that, being able to drive a car again, which was a very passionate thing for me, was just like a huge breakthrough.”

Schmidt also discussed how his experience as a quadriplegic has been able to help Robert Wickens, who was left paralyzed from the waist down following a crash at Pocono Raceway back in August of 2018, throughout his recovery process.

“That was a tragedy,” he said. “All of our research in the last 18 years prior to his injury had culminated with the process that we knew if we should get Robert into that process quickly enough, the sky was the limit. So as soon as his other injuries healed, we got him into our intensive rehabilitation process.

“He was in Denver in a well-run facility, and he just worked his tail off. It takes a lot of commitment, a lot of dedication, and he definitely has that. He was willing to put in the work. The process is getting refined as we go, but he has come a long way. The best part about it is he has inspired and motivated a lot of other people along the way. His job isn’t done, but we expect Robert to get back in a race car at some point, and that will be the full circle moment.”

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