ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.—Michael Johnson is not your typical 18-year-old. Unlike most teens, Johnson figured out at an early age what he wanted to do—in this case, race—and he has spent his youth doing it, and doing it well.
Johnson, a natural athlete, developed exceptional skills as a motorcycle racer, and until age 12, he competed successfully in races all over North America, winning regional and national championships. “As long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a professional motorcycle racer,” he says on his website.
After motorcycles, the Michigan native moved on to racing karts, and then formula cars, again proving his skills by winning. He currently drives the No. 54 Universal Coating/Coloplast car for JDC Motorsports in the IndyCar USF 2000 series; the first step on the Mazda Road to Indy, a ladder-style series that develops open-wheel drivers into IndyCar drivers. Johnson intends to climb the ladder to the top, to one day win the Indy 500.
He intends to do that, despite being paralyzed from the waist down.
Johnson crashed badly in a flat-track motorcycle race when he was 12 years old, sustaining severe spinal cord damage. He was left paralyzed from mid-chest down.
Johnson told his father, immediately after his crash, that he refused to give up on racing, and his father promised to help his son keep following that dream.
“My dad, he really kept pushing me all the way, and just the thrill of wanting to win championships again keeps me motivated,” Johnson explained. “Right when I was hurt, I immediately told my dad, ‘I don’t want to stop racing.’ He stuck to his promise to help me out, and here I am.”
His father, Tim Johnson, said, “Right when the accident happened he told me immediately he couldn’t feel his legs. Literally the next words out of his mouth were a plea not to make him quit racing.
“The next time we really got a chance to talk again was a week later in the hospital. He was lying there in the hospital bed and told me he was going to be an IndyCar driver. First paralyzed person to do it.
“Coming from a racing background myself, it’s kind of been a passion of our family to be in racing. We told him we’d do what we could to find him something he could race.”
Back on Track
After two years of surgery and rehabilitation, Michael Johnson returned to racing. The then-14-year-old started in go-karts, winning class championships in 2007 and 2008.
“We found a go-kart that was set up with hand controls that were made for [injured IndyCar driver Alex] Zinardi,” said Tim Johnson. “First year out he won the local championship out in Michigan in the junior class; next year he changed classes and won the championship again. Every year’s he’s taken another step up the ladder.”
It took a lot of effort to get Johnson a racing license, but with the help of USF 2000 Series Manager Michelle Kish, the Johnsons worked it out.
“The series, USF 2000 and IndyCar, have had to adjust the rules in their rule book to allow me to run, which is understandable, but it took them a little bit of time to get everything figured out. Now all the rules are set and I’m good to go for the whole season,” Michael explained.
“There might be some other challenges once I get up into Indy Lights or IndyCar. There could be other things for Star Mazda. I am set for 2012. According to IndyCar, I am good to go.”
In 2009, Johnson went to Portugal for cutting-edge stem-cell surgery, using stem cells from his own body to help his spinal cord regrow. This treatment, coupled with many hours a day in therapy and in the gym, has helped him regain some feeling; he now has sensation up to his waist and can walk short distances with a walker.
“I feel the difference and I will not give up!” he says on his website.
As if driving very fast cars in a very competitive series wasn’t challenging enough, Johnson has to operate all his controls with his hands. While other drivers use foot pedals, Johnson has to steer, shift, clutch, brake, and accelerate—plus adjust the brake bias and anti-roll bars—all with his hands.
Johnson doesn’t see this as holding him back. “It’s going to take a little bit of practice—I’ve been working on trying to adjust my brake bias in this car, and the front bar. It does take some getting used to because I am doing so many other things with my hands, but just like anything else, if I practice at it, I will be fine,” he said.
According to his father, that determination and willingness to work is part of Michael’s character. “[Racing] wasn’t something where he automatically flipped a switch and he was the best—he had to really work at it. He spends a lot of hours practicing and getting ready to race.
“He’s always been one that, when he gets out on the race track, he’s not going to be the fastest in practice, but look out come race day. He takes his time learning everything, and when it comes time for the race he’s putting in some good race laps, working his way forward.”
Just Another Driver
Michael Johnson is a racer. Going fast is what he does. He does not see himself as a role model for handicapped teens, or someone whose life was redeemed through will and determination—though he could be both of those things. Michael Johnson sees himself as a racecar driver, simply that.
“In daily life I roll around in a wheelchair, but in the race car I feel as if I am just another driver out there,” he said. “I am no different than anybody else. I might have some challenges here or there, but I feel like I am just another driver.”
On his website, Johnson says he is inspired by Danica Patrick, who has been breaking gender barriers in IndyCar and NASCAR. Johnson hopes to do the same for disabled drivers; he plans to be the first disabled driver to compete in the Indy 500.
As he says on his website: “I’m never going to give up. Racing is my life.”