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Sam Schmidt Gala Promises Big Names, Great Cause

At some point, you have to bid on a painting by an elephant. No, that was not a misprint. A painting by an elephant. That’s just what one does when one attends the 12th annual Racing to Recovery Gala.

It’s not the only charity event surrounding the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500 during the next three weeks, but it’s certainly one of the best. It’s the yearly benefit for the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation on Wednesday night in Indianapolis, and it’s the only black-tie event that includes an elephant painting.

No just any elephant painting, either. If you bid on this silent auction item, you get to meet the artist, take a quick lesson in elephant etiquette and watch him complete your painting. All while staying out of his way. Not a bad plan, eh?

The gala and its unusual auction items are under the direction of Ida Cahill, who serves as president and CEO of the paralysis foundation. She brings together race teams, drivers, celebrities and fans to raise money for the foundation. It’s been the major fund-raiser for Schmidt’s cause for more than a decade, and it’s one of the black-tie affairs of the month.

And this year it has moved – to D’Amore on the 48th floor of the Chase Tower – making it a bit more convenient than the previous Carmel location. Past drivers expected to attend this year include Michael Andretti, Rick Mears, Parnelli Jones, Mario Andretti and Arie Luyendyk, as well as a Who’s Who of Indy 500 past and present.

“We’ve had such a positive response to this year’s event and the new location,” Cahill said. “We’ve always had great support from the racing community, but this year it seems like there’s more of a buzz about the event. What makes this event so special is that the people in racing are so willing to give.”

Among those deeply involved is 15-time Indy 500 winner Roger Penske, who will be a special guest of honor at this year’s gala, and who donated a nose cone from a Penske car signed by Team Penske’s three drivers, Helio Castroneves, Will Power and Ryan Briscoe. “The team owners and drivers have supported us throughout the existence of the gala,” Cahill said. “The Penske organization has always sent us something significant. They’ve always been so generous.”

They aren’t the only ones. Mario and Michael Andretti are key contributors to the foundation, and their assistance with the foundation’s Day at the Races program, in which victims of spinal cord injuries are guests of teams at the races, is a godsend to the injured.

“They get to meet some of the drivers and owners and people involved in racing,” Cahill explains. “One young man we bought out last year had just started rehab. He was in a cast all the way up to his neck.

Usually that’s the hardest time for a new patient, but he had the biggest smile on his face. All of the drivers had signed his cast. He was just so thrilled to be there. It was an inspiration to the drivers almost as much as it was to him.”

That’s only part of what Schmidt or his foundation is about. An established businessman at the age of 25, Schmidt was a promising IndyCar racer, having won at his home track, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in 1999. But during a test session at Walt Disney World Speedway in 2000, Schmidt’s car crashed. The injury left him paralyzed from the neck down. Not long after, he formed his foundation.

“I always had the attitude that I could accomplish what I put my mind to,” says Schmidt, now an IndyCar owner. “All the way up until this accident, I accomplished what I set out to do. This is the first thing I’ve been involved in where so many things are out of my control.”

An estimated 5.5 million Americans – nearly 2 percent of the population – deal with some form of paralysis. Approximately 1.3 million of those have a spinal cord injury. A handful, like Schmidt, are high-profile sports stars who use their fame to help the cause. In Schmidt’s case, the cause is similar to running a business.

“The foundation’s job is to raise a lot of money and see where it needs to go,” Schmidt says. “That’s the entrepreneur approach. It’s structural and procedural. We delegate where we think we can have the most impact. I just look at the dollars and cents. On average it’s a $1.3 million tab after a paralyzed person leaves the hospital, so we have many directions we can take – cure, aftercare, research, advancement. I have to approach this from an entrepreneur’s background and allocate as best I can.”

That’s where the elephant comes in. Among the most creative items up for auction Wednesday is a curious one from the Indianapolis Zoo. The winner gets to hang out with an elephant for a day, with the final result being a painting straight from the animal’s trunk. The pachyderm equivalent of an autograph.

You cannot turn up your nose at that, folks.

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