The Indianapolis Motor Speedway will make history, yet again this afternoon. The first head-to-head autonomous vehicle race will take place on the road course at the iconic track at 12:35 p.m. ET. Verizon IndyCar Series team owner and former driver, Sam Schmidt, will take on Indianapolis 500 champion, Mario Andretti in what is sure to be a spectacle in it’s own right.
The announcement of this event was made last month during the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. When asked if he preferred to drive the SAM Car on oval or road and street courses, Schmidt explained that while there is nothing like racing at the IMS oval, doing the road and street circuits really showcase the technology and, “It’s a testament to what this car combined with the correct training is capable of.”
The decision to run the road course at IMS instead of the oval as they’ve done the past few years, was a no-brainer for Schmidt, which he explained to media on Friday May 12th at the track,
“That’s (hitting numbers alone on the oval) getting a little old. But (IMS) is the place of innovation, so why not come back here and do it on the road course, and a phenomenal road course. Yesterday was my first time on (the road course) as well. Wide track, smooth track, small curves, big curves, it’s really challenging, decreasing radius corners, all that stuff I’m excited about again as a driver, and we’re really pushing the envelope of the car, we’re not doubling up with Indy cars, so it’s exciting for me from that standpoint to go fast again.”
Schmidt ran Pikes Peak in the 100th running of the event this past June, and he completed it in 15 minutes, faster than 20 of the competitive cars being run traditionally. The folks that run the event begged him to get a number on the car, and enter the competition formally the following year. He immediately said no. Schmidt was so happy that he got to run the course because he never had the opportunity before his accident. But afterwards he felt like a teenager that did something dumb and in hindsight felt like… ‘why the heck did I do that?’ He admitted he was scared afterwards, because it really was a crazy thing to do, but he has no regrets at all!
With the Pikes Peak climb falling over the same weekend as the Road America race, he was sad to have to miss the return of Indy car racing to the track, stating he would be there this year for sure. I asked him if he would ever take the SAM car out on the track at Road America and he replied, “Yeah! Why not?!” So maybe if we are lucky, we will get treated to that next month.
Schmidt also mentioned that he and ARROW Electronics are working on trying to put something together with the two-seater program in order to give rides out in the SAM car, in the future. There’s a lot of work and planning that has to go into that before it’s something feasible, but he is hopeful that it’s something we will see in the next couple of years at IndyCar race weekend events.
For now though, we are at least guaranteed the chance to watch him take on one of the greatest motorsports racers of all-time. All the proceeds from today’s event will go to Schmidt’s charity, Conquer Paralysis Now. If you want to be involved, simply text who you think will win today’s race, “SAM” or “MARIO”, to 50555. Each text donates $10.
Mario joked that he is not going to get any testing time. Sam said that’s not true, that he can have as much as he wants… but it’s up to Doug Boles, the President of IMS to figure out exactly when he can have that track time! The two threw jokes and playful insults back and forth at each other, culminating with a bet that if Mario was able to beat Sam, Sam would field Mario in one of his SPM cars for the 2018 Indianapolis 500 and they would kick Mario’s son’s butt (I’m using cleaner verbiage than they did) together!
Jokes aside though, Mario is legitimately concerned with how this is going to pan out, which he spoke about at the speedway, yesterday,
“I’ve never been so nervous in my life. I haven’t had any sleep the last two nights, and I’m not going to have any sleep tonight. I mean, it’s crazy, yesterday was the first time I had a test to get out on the track, and so I’m going out of the pit, and I look out there, and the natural thing is to turn and see whether Sam was coming… and I was going right for the wall! Like I said, there’s a learning curve, and talk about versatility… I’ve never faced anything like this.
I just hope I don’t screw up so much. I begged him not to lap me because it’s true. When I heard him yesterday accelerate down the straightaway, I said, oh, my God.
This is the first time in my racing career that I’m not asking for more horsepower. I’m truly scared, but I trust it.”
Sam obviously has more experience behind the wheel and understands the very minute movements that make a difference behind the wheel of the Chevy Corvette ARROW car. And it’s for that reason alone that I think Sam will come out victorious in today’s on-track battle. But, in all honesty, everyone involved is winning today – the fans witness history, Conquer Paralysis Now is on par to hit it’s donation goal of 10k or higher and on top of all that, either Sam beats Mario in a race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, or we get to see Mario Andretti compete in the Indianapolis 500, 49 years after his win at the Yard of Bricks.
No matter the outcome, it’s going to be a great day in Speedway, Indiana. And don’t worry for a moment that technology might advance so quickly that we’ll have remotely controlled vehicles running races at IMS anytime soon, because just as I have told you guys multiple times that it’s the human side of this series that keeps me so hooked, Doug Boles mentioned something along the same lines regarding technology and autonomy in racing,
“What has historically been the connecting point from our fans to this event are people like Mario Andretti, people like Sam Schmidt, and without those personalities that do amazing things in race cars, I think it’s harder to sell.
As the world changes, maybe the mindset changes. But right now, as a promoter, I’m going to take a Sam Schmidt or Mario Andretti in a semi-autonomous vehicle every day over just some remote control car or something else.
This event is about how people feel about the facility the first time walking in with their dad, and so while this is really cool from a technology standpoint, I think we’re years away from the point that we could really be successful without those connections to superstars like the guys to my right.”
And that folks, is why you can have faith that IMS is in the hands of the right man. And why events like today’s head-to-head match between Sam Schmidt and Mario Andretti will continue to show the innovation of this venue, without overshadowing the history of it and the raw personal connection we have to it, as race fans and human beings.
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