Mike Brudenell: In race or rehab, Johnson has drive
 October 19, 2012| 
  • Series News

By and courtesy of Mike Brudenell
Detroit Free Press Sports Writer

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Steering-wheel-mounted controls allow Michael Johnson to drive in the USF2000 developmental open-wheel series

A couple of years ago, in the lobby of the Fillmore Detroit theater, Michael Johnson introduced himself from his wheelchair to racing icon Roger Penske.

"I'm going to race in the Indy 500 one day," said the then-17-year-old from Mt. Morris.

I was a few feet away from the pair when Johnson made his move at the annual Motor Sports Hall of Fame of America ceremony. Pretty impressive, I thought. The kid has what it takes to be a racer.

I'm glad to report that Johnson, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a dirt-bike racing accident in Sarnia, Ontario, in 2005, is within sight of his goal, with a bit of luck and support.

In September, Johnson, 19, received the USF2000 Spirit Award as the driver who best displayed "the heart of a champion" in the developmental open-wheel series that supports IndyCar and Indy Lights.

It wasn't a sympathy vote. Johnson showed on racetracks around the country that he can compete on equal terms with the best young drivers in America.

Using hand controls on his steering wheel, Johnson -- the first paralyzed driver to compete in the "Mazda Road to Indy" Cooper Tires USF2000 National Championship -- finished 15th in points in a field including some of the fastest young guns in the world.

Johnson, who raced go-karts in 2007-09 and drove in the Skip Barber Racing School Series, will return to USF2000 in 2013 in his No. 54 Coloplast/Universal Coating car to complete some unfinished business. He is aiming for a top-five points performance.

Johnson, who underwent an experimental stem-cell transplant in Portugal in 2009 and continues aggressive physical therapy at Walk the Line to Spinal Cord Injury Recovery in Southfield, visited the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey, Calif., this month.

He met with patients and talked racing and rehab.

"I'm here to support each person at the current moment, but I'm also here to help them think about the importance of always having a goal," Johnson said. "I tell everyone to never give up, because if you give up, everything you have worked for will be gone.

"Like me, a lot of individual lives here changed in an instant. I explain that it only took a split second for my life to be shattered, and it has taken me seven years to work my way back."

I recall at the Fillmore that night seeing Johnson reach out to shake Penske's hand and seeing a look of surprise on the Captain's face in meeting the young man in a wheelchair.

I'm betting Michael Johnson has surprises to come as he continues his racing journey.

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