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Schmidt infuses team with strength found in overcoming spinal injury


Schmidt purchased a race-ready team, FAZZT. It came complete with driver Alex Tagliani, a crew led by team manager Rob Edwards and engineer Allen McDonald, a sponsor with Bowers & Wilkins, a race shop, all the equipment and data from the 2010 season. It was the ultimate package.

Tagliani finished sixth in the opener at St. Petersburg last Sunday. It was the first IndyCar race outside Indianapolis for Sam Schmidt Motorsports since 2002.

"I had no interest in doing something from scratch," Schmidt explained. "This is an awesome group of individuals -- Alex, Rob Edwards, Allen McDonald -- and I saw the potential there. They had some good runs last year. I started talking with Bowers and Wilkins. It wouldn't have made sense without the funding in place for this year."

Schmidt was looking at the big picture. IndyCar will have a new technical formula in 2012 with multiple chassis and engine manufacturers, replacing the Dallara-Honda that has been run exclusively since 2007. Chevrolet and Lotus have joined Honda to produce turbocharged 2.4-liter V6 engines and Chevrolet, Lotus and Dallara will provide aerodynamic body kits to go over a mandated chassis built by Dallara.

Those manufacturers are going to need teams to help with development.

Penske Racing has signed on with Chevrolet, KV Racing with Lotus. Schmidt hopes to forge out a relationship, too, and figured having an established team would put him in the hunt. Manufacturer involvement can be a boost to your budget, paying for testing and, in some cases, drivers. They advertise, too, and that will help land sponsors, who get free exposure.

"Things were in a little bit of disarray [at FAZZT] and it was an opportunity to come in and give the team stability and throw everything at it this season and be a team in the mix in 2012," Schmidt explained. "There are a lot of people walking around the paddock saying, 'Hey, give me a bunch of money and we'll come.' There's going to be development with the manufacturers. With the experience of our team, we have stuff to bring to the table to help them if we're given the opportunity."

Schmidt has been part of IndyCar since 1997 and is best known for his wildly successful Firestone Indy Lights team, which has won 38 races (including with Josef Newgarden at St. Petersburg last Sunday) and four championships.

He's also entered the Indianapolis 500 every year since 2001, sometimes in partnership with another IndyCar team. Townsend Bell finished 16th for Schmidt and Target/Chip Ganassi Racing last year and Alex Lloyd was 13th in 2009.

Richie Hearn gave Schmidt his best Indy finish with a sixth in 2002.

Schmidt, 46, began his driving career after graduating from Pepperdine University in Malibu with an MBA in international finance. He was 32 when he broke into IndyCars in 1997. Schmidt made 27 career starts, three at Indianapolis, and won at Las Vegas, where he lives, in 1999.

In a testing crash at Walt Disney World Speedway in January 2000, Schmidt crashed. He suffered a severe spinal cord injury in the C-3/C-4 area and nearly died. Schmidt is a quadriplegic, but through an intensive daily therapy program, he's increased his neck strength and has partial shoulder movement.

"I spent six months in a rehab hospital in St. Louis," Schmidt said. "I had a routine, but I'd gone from living on the road 250 days a year and needed to find something to do to keep busy. We went to the open test at Phoenix in January 2001, and kind of jumped into it with both feet with Davey Hamilton driving.

"I've always been competitive, and being a team owner allowed me to combine my need for competition and my passion for racing. Hopefully, they all complement each other."

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Schmidt's IndyCar team started 30 races in 2001 and 2002. Jaques Lazier had the team's top finish, third at Nashville Superspeedway in 2001.

By the end of 2002, the migration of top, well-established teams from CART Champ Cars to Indy Racing League IndyCars was underway. Penske, Ganassi and Rahal Letterman brought bigger budgets, the path to all good things in racing. Schmidt decided to retrench and build a top-flight Indy Lights organization and use it to field a car in the Indy 500.

"With the success in Lights, a lot of people have asked me for the last five or six years when I was going back to IndyCar," Schmidt said. "Lights has give me a run at the level of a top IndyCar team at the Lights level. I've learned what it takes to compete and be fast out of the box."

The FAZZT team had been a startup in 2010, an operation fueled by Tagliani's desire to continue his career. The Canadian raced in Champ Car from 2000 through 2007. Tagliani, who had one Champ Car win, at Road America in 2004, drove in eight IndyCar races in 2008 and 2009, including finishing 11th in the Indy 500 and earning Chase Rookie of the Year honors.

Tagliani recruited friend and businessman Andre Azzi to form FAZZT, purchasing the assets of Roth Racing. Tagliani and two others were partners with Azzi in the original group, but by last May it was only Azzi and Tagliani.

Tagliani was also responsible for finding sponsor Bowers & Wilkins, a manufacturer of high-end audio equipment.

FAZZT showed potential in 2010. Tagliani finished fourth at Mid-Ohio, sixth at St. Petersburg, eighth at Kansas and 10th at Indianapolis, where he ran in the top five for much of the race. Tagliani says the team lacked the leadership of an owner. Azzi was running his business interests in Montreal and Tagliani wasn't comfortable with the role.

"I started the team with Andre, who was passionate about it and wanted to help me, with the goal of being a driver," Tagliani said. "All of this was for me to drive. I was willing to do anything to be a driver, it was always better for me than being involved in ownership. We had Rob [Edwards] and his focus was on building the team, but we needed an owner to make the big decisions. It wasn't something I wanted to do.

"From Andre's perspective, he knew at some point the equipment [which will be obsolete following the 2011 season] was going to be worth a ton. I think we were at a point the team had created interest by various parties [to buy], for Sam especially. Sam had always had the desire to get back in IndyCar. Our entity was a very valuable property, I'd brought a sponsor to the team and we'd shown lots of potential on the track."

Tagliani is happy to call Schmidt his boss.

"It's nice we actually have a leader," Tagliani said. "Sam is very excited. He has a lot of experience and he's bringing a lot of passion and intensity to our team. He knows how to be successful as a driver and an owner. He's won races as a driver and four championships in Indy Lights. It's great to have a guy like that who is strong and successful on both sides of the picture. Sam is very much involved in everything that's happening."

Schmidt will have a two-car team at Indianapolis with Bell and also has a deal for Indy with Jay Howard, who has been farmed out to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Wade Cunningham will drive a partial schedule for the team after Indianapolis.

"We're going to make a go of it this year and, hopefully, get some commercial backing for 2012," Schmidt said. "We sat down and set some goals for this year, two or three podiums, a number of top-fives and top seven in points. Those are high goals and that's a pretty huge hurdle and if we outperform those, it would be super huge, awesome."

Schmidt is a profile in courage. He's overcome a life-changing event to continue a successful career in motor racing. His determination can't be underestimated.