Open-wheel racing’s first paralyzed driver has his eyes set on IndyCar fame

Mazda Road to Indy, Pro Mazda, Pro Mazda commentary — By on June 23, 2014 10:11 am

Climbing back on the horse

Racing was foremost on Johnson’s mind during his initial days and weeks in the hospital, and it remained there during his rehabilitation. As his health gradually improved Johnson’s itch to race was intensifying, and he reminded his dad of their conversations about keeping him in racing.

True to his word, Johnson’s dad picked up a go-kart as a Christmas present in 2006, and with the help of a set of hand controls originally designed for racer and double amputee Alex Zanardi, Johnson was able to hit the track once again.

Johnson quickly adapted to the hand controls and began to capture races and championships in karting — three in total — just as he had in motorcycle racing. His competitive fires were burning hot after a year and a half of kart racing, though, and he took aim at a huge challenge for any driver, much less a paraplegic: the American open-wheel racing ladder, with its high-speed, high-downforce racing machines.

“In 2008 I tested a (Pro) Mazda (car) with John Walko Racing, but that wasn’t where we wanted to go yet and I wasn’t ready,” Johnson says. “In 2009, we started talking to the Skip Barber series. They had agreed to help us put hand controls in a car, so we started racing there and that’s where my career took off.

“I finished third in the championship in 2011, and around that same time I met my manager, Matthias Czabok. He had a good relationship with John Church, and that’s where the relationship with JDC Motorsports came along.”

With his mind always fixated on the future, Johnson encapsulates his career in the Skip Barber series in this two-sentence recollection. However, that is one of the greatest undersells of all time. Johnson did finish third in the Skip Barber championship in 2011, as he says, but he fails to even mention that over the course of that summer he became the first paralyzed driver ever to win a race in open-wheel competition and that he did it not once or twice but three times, capturing the May event at Watkins Glen and sweeping the July Road America weekend that year.

With a head full of steam coming off of the Skip Barber series, Johnson was ready for the next rung in the Mazda Road to Indy. John Church and his JDC Motorsports crew were the team tasked with making that happen.

Church has run JDC Motorsports since 1994, helping many young drivers climb the open-wheel racing ladder in the process. When first approached by the Johnsons, Church was on board with the idea but wasn’t quite ready for the monumental undertaking that designing and preparing a car for a paraplegic racer would entail.

Paraplegic racer Michael Johnson in Pro Mazda with JDC Motorsports“When we started on the project, we literally had no idea what we were doing,” Church recalls, laughing as the memories return. “In his situation, it’s hard to know where to start.

“When we put the first car together for him the expectations were very low, but not in a negative way. You’re just like, ‘How do we do this?’ and, ‘How does he do this?’ Your mind is racing wondering about different bad scenarios that could happen.

“I remember very vividly that I told him to run three laps and bring it in and talk about it with us — then he went out there and ran like 20 laps,” Church says with a laugh. “After four or five laps we were just like, ‘Hey, let him go.’ He comes in after 20 laps and he’s got a big smile on his face, and he’s running good lap times on a wet track. At that point we started talking about car adjustments, and I was like, ‘Wow, we just jumped over like 25 hurdles that we weren’t sure about.’ All of sudden, everything was working fine.”

The team and Johnson were settling in together, but there were still a lot of hurdles to address to reassure the sanctioning body that Johnson could handle the rigors of driving an open-wheel car with top speeds well in excess of 150 MPH and extreme G-force loads during cornering and braking. In fact, when Michael showed up for his first official USF2000 test at Indianapolis in 2012, IndyCar officials held him off the track for precautionary reasons — but in the most heartbreaking of fashions.

“Michael was strapped into the car and ready to when they green flagged the session,” his father recalls. “Then, an official came over and stopped us. They told us that they had to get clearance from someone, and Michael sat in the race car for virtually the whole session waiting for someone to tell us what to do. Nobody at IndyCar would make that decision, though, and we were told later that day that the second day of the test wasn’t going to happen, either.”

“Their paperwork and ours wasn’t on the same page,” Johnson adds, “so that was a bit of a bummer since that was going to be our first official test. In the end, they got everything figured out and they let me race. I did all of the tests and doctors’ appointments that they wanted me to go through to race.”

Luckily for Johnson, one of his staunchest supporters also happened to own the series that he aiming to compete in at that time: Dan Andersen.

“John Church approached me first,” Andersen remembers. “My tech guys and I took a look at the Skip Barber race car that Michael had been running, and I liked the idea right from the beginning.

“It was impressive what Michael had already done, and it was impressive what he was attempting to do. He had accomplished a lot up to that point in go karts and Skip Barber, and I saw no reason why we wouldn’t be able to enable Michael to do that.

“I met Michael at the Chris Griffiths test at Indy in 2012.  I went to bat for him with IndyCar on the licensing and medical side, but in the end we could not get him into the car that day because we had to deal with a medication issue. Paraplegics take a medication that can cause involuntary spasms, so Michael had to go for some additional testing to make sure that wasn’t going to cause any problems for him. That testing occurred after the test, so unfortunately he wasn’t able to get out onto the track. It was a disappointing first meeting with he and his group, but we put the effort out and eventually got it done.”

With medical clearance no longer an issue, Johnson, Church and Andersen went to work adapting the car and the rules so that Johnson could compete with the hand controls he would need to be able to steer, accelerate, brake, and shift gears in the car.

Andersen tackled the problem head-on with an updated rule set and a ready response for any teams or competitors who might claim Johnson somehow had an advantage with his hand controls.

“The issue was always that it was a spec series, so how were we going to allow one car to be out of spec because of hand controls and whether or not that would be fair,” Andersen says. “It has yet to come up, but my response to that would be the hand controls are legal for all cars. You have an option to run the hand controls as well, as long as you give up your foot controls.”

Not surprisingly, Andersen has yet to have any takers on his unattractive offer. But perhaps more surprisingly in the competitive and sometimes cutthroat world of professional racing, teams have been nothing but supportive of Johnson at every turn.

“There has been zero resistance from the other teams,” Andersen says. “100% of the people that I talk to admire Michael for what he has accomplished and what he continues to accomplish. He’s with a good team, and they’ve done what they need to do to work with our tech staff to make sure that we’re comfortable with every method that they have to use hand controls. And that continues because we’re trying to make it even easier for him to utilize those controls.”

Johnson has noticed the positive vibe in the paddock, and he’s appreciative of the chance that he has to race in Pro Mazda series.

“That’s the cool thing about this era is that there is always somebody out there,” Johnson says. “The general population is so much more accepting now of more and more people doing different things. There’s a lot of support out there for injured athletes that wasn’t out there 10 years ago.  I want to get more people to look at what I’m doing in racing and see that I didn’t give up and that you can really live the life that you want to live.”


NEXT PAGE: The innovations that allow Johnson to race, explained

Pages: 1 2 3 4

Tags: , ,