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Injured as driver, winning as owner

A crash may have left Sam Schmidt a quadriplegic, but it didn't slow him down as he started his own team.

Car owner Sam Schmidt (left) laughs with driver Townsend Bell on the opening day of time trials for the Indianapolis 500.
Car owner Sam Schmidt (left) laughs with driver Townsend Bell on the opening day of time trials for the Indianapolis 500.Read moreDARRON CUMMINGS / Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS - Sam Schmidt's blue eyes never stop moving. They dart from one side to the other: checking out what's going on over in that corner of the garage, keeping a lookout for those who might not see him coming, and always - always - searching for the next opportunity.

His body may be motionless below the shoulders.

But there's so much going on behind those eyes.

"I don't have time to get depressed. I don't have time to think about what I can't do," said Schmidt, parked in one of the few quiet spots in the bustling paddock at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "I just have to figure out how to do what I have to do."

Schmidt was a rising star in the IndyCar series when a devastating crash more than 11 years ago pulverized two vertebrae in his back and left him a quadriplegic. Some people might have folded. He went all-in - Schmidt lives in Las Vegas, after all - and turned those awful cards into a winning hand.

Yes, there's plenty he can't do anymore.

But there's so much he can do.

Schmidt started a foundation that raises money for those trying to find a cure for catastrophic spinal injuries. He reached out to others in a similar predicament, spreading the word that life doesn't have to end when the arms and legs stop working. Most important, he turned his passion for racing in a new direction, starting his own team.

"Sam's brain is unbelievably active," said defending Indy 500 champion Dario Franchitti. "You realize he's a very, very smart guy. He loves racing, and he paid a huge price for that love."

Make no mistake, Schmidt would have preferred a nice, long career behind the wheel to life in a wheelchair.

"I'd be lying if I said I don't have bad days," he said. "I remember like yesterday what it was like to go around this place at 220 miles per hour. When a driver is talking to me and I can't use my hands to describe what I would feel and how they should react, it frustrates the heck out of me. I do miss it.

"But," he added, "I guess this is kind of the second-best thing."

There was nothing second-best about Schmidt's fledgling team during 500 qualifying. Alex Tagliani turned four laps around the historic speedway at more than 227 m.p.h., putting the No. 77 machine on the pole for Sunday's race. Schmidt, the guy who goes only as fast as a chair will take him, choked up as he celebrated the stunning accomplishment with his Canadian driver.

"I think he sees himself driving through me," Tagliani said. "Being able to contribute a bit to his joy means a lot to me. Now, I want it to happen every weekend."

Schmidt was on top of the world as one millennium gave way to another. He had just witnessed the birth of his son. He was coming off his first career victory - in Las Vegas, no less - and a fifth-place finish in the 1999 standings.

Then, just six days into the 2000s, it all came crashing down during a routine testing session when Schmidt's car slammed into a wall and crushed his spine.

There was an aborted attempt to get into the Indy Racing League as a car owner. When the money dried up, he dropped down into the Indy Lights development series, building a team that won championships year after year. Then, just before the start of this season, he learned that the financially ailing FAZZT team was up for sale.

"The best way to describe Sam is 'He's an opportunist,' " said Townsend Bell, who will start fourth on Sunday in Schmidt's other car, the No. 99 entry. ". . . It's simply incredible when you think about what he's accomplished."