AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Mario Andretti showed everyone just how far technology has come in the world of racing.
On Saturday, the 77-year-old racing icon made a late pass in the grass and pulled away from Sam Schmidt in the final straightaway on the Indy track to win a semi-autonomous car race, an exhibition event where the real winners might be those trying to get back in the driver’s seat after suffering severe injuries.
Schmidt has been paralyzed from the neck down since a crash in January 2000.
“This is absolutely phenomenal. The benefits that this will provide worldwide to individuals like Sam, war veterans and so on and so forth; that alone with what Arrow Technologies has done is so noble,” Andretti said. “Again, I can’t say enough for how good this can be. It needs to be known that this technology is available.”
The two former IndyCar racers drove side-by-side and traded leads several times, controlling the cars with a high-tech headset that connected with infrared cameras on the dashboard. They steered by tilting their heads, accelerated and braked by breathing into a tube and switched gears by using voice commands.
At times, the cars topped 130 mph on Indy’s 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course.
For the 52-year-old Schmidt, it was a treat to get back behind the steering wheel.
“It feels normal. It’s the first time in 17 years I’ve felt normal,” he said. “There are so many things I haven’t been able to teach my kids to do, to throw a football to driving a stick shift. To be able to come back and do this kind of stuff makes up for it a little bit.”
Schmidt has been a longtime favorite in Gasoline Alley and has stayed involved in the IndyCar Series as a team owner, starting a low-budget team and turning it into a multi-car effort that has emerged as a serious contender.
Since getting hurt, he has played a prominent role in raising money for spinal cord injury research and has been vocal supporter of promoting technological advancements, including self-autonomous cars.
Andretti’s only other win at the historic Brickyard came in the 1969 Indianapolis 500.
Since then, it’s been mostly heartbreak for the Andretti family. Mario Andretti was the 500 runner-up twice after his win and his grandson, Marco, finished as the 2006 runner-up. Michael Andretti, Mario’s son and Marco’s father, led more laps in the race than any other non-winning driver.
So, of course, when Schmidt challenged one of IndyCar’s most famous drivers to a race, Andretti said yes. Now, Schmidt wants a rematch.
“He didn’t cut me any slack, that’s for sure,” said Schmidt, joking.
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