The courage of Sam Schmidt

Sam Schmidt, team boss of his eponymous IRL team, admits he was close to parking his Indy car after his driver, Davey Hamilton, suffered severe injuries to his legs and feet in a crash at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9. Schmidt, who is confined to a wheel chair after suffering severe spinal cord injuries in a crash at Walt Disney World Speedway on January 6, 2000, knows the devastation of crippling injuries. To see it happen to his friend was almost more than he could bear.

The courage of Sam Schmidt

But Schmidt persevered and continued his team. Richie Hearn filled in at Pikes Peak International Raceway on June 17 and finished ninth in that Indy Racing League event.

On Friday, Jaques Lazier gave Schmidt his biggest reward yet as a team owner when he won the pole on Friday for Saturday night's SunTrust Indy Challenge at Richmond International Raceway. Lazier put Schmidt's car on the pole with a lap at 160.417 mph.

It also gave Schmidt a chance to reflect on that difficult night at Texas Motor Speedway three weeks ago.

"That Saturday night was very devastating and it took a lot of air out of my sail because Davey and I were much more than a driver/owner relationship," Schmidt said. "We were friends, our kids play together and nobody knows what he is going through except for me. I could barely see him on Sunday and now I'm really happy that when he went back to Indy, things started to look positive.

"I'm sure he is sitting there and is as jazzed for us as we are. It's really tough because a driver is going to take the ride, but as an owner, I have the ability to say, I'm not going to be an owner when somebody gets hurt in the car. But I guess I can't stay away, either."

Lazier's pole has boosted his team owner's spirits and given him hope to continue.

"It's everything I expected it to be and probably a little more," Schmidt said. "When I think about what we did the last few days, it was a lot of work, but it's nice to have it pay off.

"There is nothing like doing it as a driver, though. Jaques did a hell of a job driving the car, I can tell you."

Earlier this week, Schmidt visited a Disabled Veterans hospital in Richmond. He had 40 disabled patients at the track on Friday as his guests to show them that they can overcome their injuries and live their dreams.

"These are all guys that have been injured a long time and the first goal is to show them a good time," Schmidt said. "I met a guy the other day with an injury lower than mine and he's not a vet and has been that way for three years. I know how painful that is because I've been there and that meant a lot to him.

"The other reason I bring them out here is for them to see that they don't have to sit at home and watch TV for the rest of their life. I'm about as high a level of injury as anybody can get. They don't think they can do anything with their life and I tell them, this is my passion so why sit home and watch them on TV? You can figure out a way to still do the things you want. That has been one of my goals when we started this team. I hope we can do it next year at every race."

After Hamilton suffered his injuries, Schmidt was faced with the decision of who would take the driver seat. Hearn did an admirable job at Pikes Peak, but Schmidt wanted to give Lazier a chance to see what he could do.

"I really, really struggled after Pikes Peak with any type of decision to use anybody but Richie. He did exactly what we asked him to do," Schmidt said. "We had an overheating problem towards the end of the race and couldn't do any better than ninth. Having said that, we had been working on a deal ever since I heard the Jaques wasn't going to be going on the rest of the year with Team Xtreme. Richie did a great job, but we had an opportunity to try another driver here. There is nothing lost with trying another driver. He is obviously very good.

"People strongly underestimate the ability to communicate and the meshing of the minds and what a driver needs to go fast in this league. The analogy I use is Tony Stewart and Greg Zipadelli in NASCAR Winston Cup racing. Tony wasn't very strong in Busch, but he has Zipadelli as his crew chief in Winston Cup and he knows what he wants. We have set it up with four people and out of 10 things we tried on the car, only one of them didn't work. We don't have huge resources, so this validates the IRL's formula, at least on a small track."

Lazier hopes Friday's pole is the start of even bigger things at Sam Schmidt Motorsports.

"Going into this weekend with Sam, our whole plan was to feel each other out and find out if this was a natural fit," Lazier said. "So far, it has been. I think what we ideally want to do is finish out this season and look toward next season as well. This is just the beginning of the wonderful building block between Sam Schmidt and myself."

The team owner revealed that Lazier was on his short list of drivers when he started the team before he chose Hamilton to be the man at the beginning of the season.

"We didn't start this team until February 9 and Jaques was one of four or five guys on my list along with Billy Boat, Davey Hamilton and Richie Hearn," Schmidt said. "We knew he was a talent and I raced against him. I specifically remember at Atlanta I screwed up a pit stop and went from first to 14th and he and I went straight to the front. From that point, I've had an extreme amount of respect for him and his driving talents. He drove well at Pikes Peak, too."

So, where does Friday's pole rank on Schmidt's list of goals when he began his race team?

"Right below winning a race," Schmidt said. "Jaques didn't place a lot of emphasis on it this morning, but frankly he hasn't had one before and doesn't know how tough they are. This was tough and they drove hard to get it, but we may never see fifth or better the rest of the year. This is something he will appreciate if we build some momentum and carry on."

"This will last a long time. My guys are the epitome of racers at heart. They aren't getting paid the big bucks some of these team mechanics do. We did everything but write off a car at Atlanta and for them to turn around and get the car ready for Indy and have a motor blow when we were running seventh there. We have had nothing but downers for the last four races before Pikes Peak and these guys have done nothing but work 18 or 20 hour days, seven days a week.

"Now, we have a pole. If we can bring it home in the top five, I don't think anybody can deny the fact that we are a good, economic fit for somebody."

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