Being paralyzed at the age of 12 can have a wrecking effect on your development. It can make you feel limited socially, confused about who you are and your place in the world. But for Michael Johnson, this could have never happened. He knew what he was destined to be since he was 3 years old — a speed racer. If anything, his motocross accident only forced him to think outside the box.
Both his father and grandfather raced motorcycles. In some families baseball gloves are passed down through the generations, but in the Johnson family, a fiery must-race attitude is passed down. “One of my earliest racing memories is riding with my dad through the woods during a 50-mile Enduro called the Buddy class. I could barely walk, but I loved it!”
Johnson, now 20, started out with a little Suzuki JR50 growing up in Flint, Mich. “It had training wheels on it,” he laughs. He was on a motorcycle his entire childhood, racing at over 300 dirt track races across the United States and Canada. By the age of 12, he had won 14 national titles. There was no denying the kid was born for it. “Racing has just been natural to me. It’s something I’m good at and I really like doing.”
It was while racing on a half-mile flat track race in Sarnia, Canada, that his love of racing faced its ultimate challenge. “It was the first race of the day, a short five-lap race that determined where we would all start for the 20-lap night race,” he says. “I went through a wood fence with a lap to go, hit the handlebars with my chest so hard it broke my back. I was paralyzed that instant.” Afterwards, the only thing he was worried about was if he would race again. His injury occurred at the T5-6 level, breaking dozens of other bones in the process.
From the onset, Johnson has been committed to rehab and getting as much function back as possible. He traveled to Portugal to have olfactory stem cells taken from his nose and injected into his spine by the famous Dr. Lima — and subsequently regained feeling from his chest to his hips. He would spend nine hours a week in therapy and was an active participant at Walk The Line rehab in Southfield, Mich. Despite his commitment to getting better, he was just as committed to racing again, and he got his first chance to drive post-injury in Christmas 2006.
From Karts to Open-Cockpit Formula Cars
Johnson’s paralyzed legs meant he could no longer be competitive in motorcycle racing. His only option was to find a vehicle that was just as fast on four wheels as on two. He started with go-karts — Jamie Sieracki of Franklin Motorsports helped him set up his first hand control system. After getting the hang of the car, he began racing again on the go-kart circuit in 2007. “That was the start of lots of racing to come,” says Johnson.
Johnson took to this extremely fast version of go-karts quickly, despite the learning curve that comes with getting comfortable with a new vehicle. “It took a little bit to get the feel for it,” he admits, “but it got better each time I drove.” His first race was at a local go-kart track in East Lansing, Mich. “I absolutely loved getting back on the track and starting racing again. I wasn’t nervous at all, I just knew I was back where I belonged.”
Within months he proved he could still race at an elite level, winning several go-kart races the first year. “When we strap the helmet on, fear is no longer in our mind,” he says, explaining about how he was able to get back into racing so quickly. But he wanted to race even more intensely — go-karts could only take him so far. Doing some research, he discovered open-wheel open-formula cockpit cars could be one of the best vehicles for his limitations, so he and his dad went out to test their theory.
After test driving an open cockpit formula car, he found it was the perfect vehicle for him. While a motorcycle requires all muscular control to compete at an elite level, open formula cars do not. Open formula cockpit cars can be controlled fully without any leg movement, with hand controls. A fine-tuned ability upper body is the only requirement to compete at a high level, and Johnson has that in spades.
His hand controls to operate his formula car are a work-in-progress, but as they stand now they’re pretty amazing. He brakes by pushing in on the steering wheel (the brakes are connected to the steering column), the throttle is a lever on the left side of the steering wheel, the mechanical clutch is by his left leg and the shifting is on his right side like normal. Even though he can’t feel the vibrations in the lower half of his body, which allows nondisabled drivers to sense the vehicle and better control it, he drives upwards of 140 mph as cleanly as anybody else.
The Dream: Indy 500
After realizing open cockpit formula cars were his destiny, he had a new dream — to become the first paralyzed driver to race in the Indy 500. “And to win it,” he adds. But one doesn’t just sign up to race at Indy. Drivers have to follow a series of qualifying steps. The first is to get signed by a racing team in order to get on the professional IndyCar circuit (the precursor to racing at the Indy 500). In 2012, Johnson was picked up by JDC MotorSports from Minneapolis, Minn., becoming the first person with paralysis to get signed by an Indy racing team.
After joining JDC MotorSports, the next and more difficult step was securing a sponsor, and Johnson found one of the most apropos sponsors you can get for a paralyzed driver — SpeediCath. A corporate sponsor is critical to thriving in the IndyCar racing world. Coloplast, the mother company of Speedicath, has treated him well.
In his first year as a pro, Johnson drove the USF 2000 Road to Indy IndyCar circuit, competing in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series, which is a precursor to IndyLights, and the first step in the Mazda Road to Indy development ladder. He did not disappoint in his pro racing debut. He finished third overall in the Skip Arbor Summer Series and finished in the top 10 of several of the races, including being able to race at The Motor Speedway in Indianapolis — the site of the Indy 500.
His showing was so good in fact that he easily secured a spot on the JDC MotorSports team for 2013. And he learned a lot his first year, too, saying he needs to work on his patience. “I think I have been trying to prove a lot this year, maybe a little too much and over-thinking things, so I’m really going to concentrate on my driving and having fun for the 2013 season.”
While racing the circuit last year, Johnson also stopped at rehab centers along the way to show off his car and to speak with newly injured people. “It is so much fun talking with them, signing autographs and just hearing their stories while I tell them mine. I can’t give up,” he says. “I need to prove to myself and others that I can [succeed].”
Indy Pioneers Who Use Wheelchairs
Although Johnson is one of the few people in the world to race post-injury, he isn’t the first person with a spinal cord injury to make a name for himself in the racing world. Sam Schmidt is one of the most recognizable names in racing for both his racing career and for his team. In 2000, while testing in preparation for the season, Schmidt broke his neck in a crash at Walt Disney World Speedway, becoming a C3 quadriplegic. For him, racing was out of the cards.
But he wasn’t about to leave the racing world. He went on to become a team owner after meeting Sir Frank Williams, the only paraplegic Formula One team owner in the world. Sam founded Sam Schmidt Motorsports in 2001, fielding cars in the IZOD IndyCar series, and the team has become one of the most successful teams in the history of the Firestone IndyLights Series. Sam Schmidt Motorsports has had 53 race wins, six championships and 14 cars that qualified in the Indianapolis 500.
Johnson has drawn a lot of motivation from Schmidt. “I learned about Sam after my injury. I was doing a lot of research on racing with a disability and his name kept coming up. Sam’s team is incredible. They know how to win and he has really helped show those with disabilities that you can still be a leader in the racing world,” says Johnson. “Even though he doesn’t have any paralyzed drivers on his race team, his involvement alone breaks down barriers. I knew right away there was no reason why I couldn’t race.”
Last year, another well-known name in the disability world established a stake in racing. BraunAbility, a leading manufacturer of adapted vans, sponsored the Schmidt Indy cars last year, with Townsend Bell driving the number 99 entry and finishing ninth out of the 33 finishers. BraunAbility owner Ralph Braun, born with spinal muscular atrophy and going strong at 72, has been a fan of racing his entire life. “I’ve always loved racing and am excited to live out the dream of having my company’s name on the Indy 500 track in my home state — especially in partnership with Sam Schmidt,” says Braun. The Schmidt-Braun partnership made disability history — they are the only wheelchair-user owned and sponsored team to have a car at Indy.
And Schmidt is thrilled about Johnson turning pro and possibly racing at Indy one day. “I’m supportive of anyone who faces their disability head on and continues to follow their passion in life, whether that be racing, surfing or ping pong,” he says. “I’ve spoken with Michael Johnson on several occasions and applaud his determination and perseverance.”
Lots of Track Ahead
Making his dream of racing in the Indy 500 come true is still a long ways off for Johnson. He must race in two more circuits, and learn to drive even more high-level cars. “I would love to be racing in the Indy 500 in the next four to five years. I think that’s pretty realistic and I should have a lot of fun.” The 2013 season kicks off in February. In January, Johnson tested cars in Savannah, Ga., and Florida to get ready for the season. “This year I’ll also start testing out the next level of car, the Star Mazda, which I am hoping I will move up to for the 2013-2014 season.”
When he’s not at the track, Johnson still races any way he can. In the winter, he rides snowmobiles and goes ice biking (racing motorcycles on frozen lakes with studded wheels). “I would say there is more traction on ice than there is on pavement,” he jokes. “My plan is to have some part in racing the rest of my life. I want to race as long as I can, but when it’s time to quit, who knows what I’ll do. Maybe one day I’ll own a team.”
Whatever you do, don’t say “good for him” for getting back to doing what he loves. “I don’t think about it as me being in a wheelchair. I am simply there to race, just like I was before my injury. It’s what I do. I love it.”
Be on the lookout for number 54 to make waves in the near future.
Tiffiny Carlson writes “Spin 2.0,” a blog on www.newmobility.com.