News Article: Paralyzed driver Michael Johnson ready to take next step into professional auto racing
 March 9, 2012| 
  • Series News

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By Kyle Austin | 

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MOUNT MORRIS -- Michael Johnson wheels his legs out from underneath the kitchen table, demonstrating just how far he’s come in the past six years.

He puts a hand on his right leg. He can feel that now. He has full feeling down to near his hips and partial feeling everywhere below. And he can walk, with assistance, his legs doing about 60 percent of the work.

Six years ago, when he lay just outside a dirt motorcycle race track in Sarnia, Ontario, his back broken with no feeling below his chest, none of that was certain.

Now, after surgeries and intensive physical therapy, he’s preparing to begin his career as a professional race car driver later this month.

Racing may be what put him in that wheelchair in the first place. But it’s also been his motivation to rehabilitate, and to do something nobody in his situation has ever done. 

“I think it was a good thing that pushed me to do something, to get back to where I was at,” Johnson said. “It helped me. For people that have had injuries like this, it’s always good to have something that pushes you to get better and get back doing it.”


There wasn’t any snow on the ground near Flint on Christmas, 2006. And Michael Johnson couldn’t have been happier.

A specially designed go-kart had just arrived from Minnesota, a Christmas present of sorts, and dry ground meant he could try it out for the first time in the dead of winter.

Not quite 18 months after his accident, Johnson’s return to auto racing started with a few trial laps driving the go-kart in the parking lot of his family’s paint coating company in Genesee Township.

Before his accident, Johnson won 14 national championships in dirt track motorcycle circuits. After his paralysis mandated a switch to go-karts, it didn’t take him long to adjust to his new hand controls and start dominating the area circuits.

He won a Lansing-area circuit in 2007, and worked his way up to the Great Lakes Pro Series, where he earned driver of the year honors in 2009.

Soon, racing was nearly a full-time job. Johnson switched from Frankenmuth High School to a homeschooling program in 2009, giving him more time to focus both on his racing and his physical therapy.

From go-karts, he graduated to open-wheel racing at the Skip Barber Racing School in 2010, traveling to different tracks around the country nearly ever week. After making the jump from go-karts, Johnson had plenty to learn. His coach, Grant Maiman, said it didn’t take long.

“I haven’t seen him make the same mistakes twice,” Maiman said. “You can’t really call them a mistake, learning lessons, I’ll say. If there’s a learning opportunity, he’s always capitalizing on it, improving himself and moving forward.”

For Johnson, that challenge included not only learning to drive a formula car, but constantly tweaking the set-up. He and his team continually tinkered with how to best configure his car to be driven with two extremities instead of four.

“Every time we go out, he’s doing two things,” Maiman said. “He’s developing that system with feedback and engineers, discussing with them to make that system better, and at the same time he’s becoming a better driver, and also learning what he can do to fine-tune it.”

His current car setup includes a paddle on the left side of the wheel to control the throttle, alongside a lever for the clutch. His gearshift is on the right-hand side, and to brake he pushes in on the steering wheel.

It can get a bit hectic in the cockpit, but Johnson said his background in motorcycle racing prepared him well for his new setup.

“With racing motorcycles, there’s a lot on the handlebars,” Johnson said. “I was kind of used to using my hands for different things.”

What’s different from motorcycles, though, is the amount of strength required to drive a formula car. On top of the three-hour physical therapy sessions he does three times a week, Johnson spends two or three days per week with a strength trainer, working largely on arm strength.

Therein lies another challenge for Johnson: with only hand controls, his arms must do the power work typically done by legs. In the type of car he drove for the past two years, he had to use his arms to apply up to 150 pounds of brake pressure. Maiman compared it to doing 300-pound squats while walking.

“That’s not something that the average arms were designed to do. His arms are stronger than my legs, I would say,” said Maiman, a former professional driver.

Throughout his two years driving formula cars, Johnson said the feeling throughout his lower body has steadily improved -- a result, he said, largely from stem-cell surgery he underwent in Portugul in 2009. That increased feeling helps him feel the car’s vibrations, a crucial sensation to have for any driver.

After all the tweaking and strength training, Johnson raced full-time in the Skip Barber summer series in 2011, finishing third overall with three wins and 13 top-ten finishes.

This year, he’s entering the USF2000, an entry-level formula car racing series that has graduated former Indianapolis 500 winners Sam Hornish, Jr. and the late Dan Wheldon. It’s the first of three series meant to develop drivers toward one day racing in the IndyCar series and the Indianapolis 500.

The 2012 USF2000 opens March 15 in Sebring, Fla. When he gets in the cockpit for that first race, Johnson will be the first paralyzed driver to race a professional IndyCar circuit.

“It’s a very big step,” Johnson said. “It’s basically pro now. There’s a lot of publicity in this, a lot of people are watching the up and comers to IndyCar.”


His memory is a little spotty, but Johnson remembers wiping the shield on his helmet during the second-to-last lap that day in Sarnia. Next thing he knew, he was lying in the dirt outside of the track with no feeling in his legs. He was just 12 years old.

Johnson had hit a rut in the track and veered sharply to the right. His bike ran through a wooden fence, and the handlebars slammed into his chest.

Looking back, there are plenty of what-ifs. He ran out of tear-offs, the thin pieces of plastic that remove from a helmet visor, and knows he should have added more before the race to ensure visibility. The race was just a heat race, to set the start order for the day’s main event. Nothing would have been lost from slowing down and not trying to move from last all the way to first.

But Johnson doesn’t dwell on the what-ifs.

“From my point of view, I think it happened for a reason,” Johnson said.

Almost immediately after the accident, the focus shifted to returning to racing. Before he was even loaded into an ambulance that day, Johnson told his parents that he didn’t want his racing career to be over.

Born into a racing family -- his father, Tim, used to race professionally around the country -- Johnson started driving at 6 years old. He first learned on small motorcycles, racing loops through the course set up on his family’s property.

Now, getting back to racing was his singular focus -- but one that would be tested. After spending two months in the hospital following the accident, Johnson developed a pressure sore that became an infected bone that required more surgery. He spent nearly all of 2006 in the hospital.

“It was a rough year,” Johnson said. “...(Racing) was basically what kept me going. I wanted to get back racing. That was my thing I did. That’s what I loved.”

His parents spent the year shuttling between the Ronald McDonald house in Detroit and their home in Mount Morris. But throughout a tough year, they found encouragement in a son who never got discouraged.

“He’s always had a positive attitude, always,” his mother, Kathi Johnson said. “He’s never felt sorry for himself. Even when he was down in bed, he just had a positive attitude.”

And it’s that attitude that will carry him through the step up from amateur racing to professional.

“He’s got a great mindset, he’s got a great team behind him,” Maiman said. “And as they continue to develop the car and he develops as a driver, he’ll figure it out. I don’t doubt that.”

© 2012 All rights reserved.

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