Michael Johnson dreams of racing in the Indy 500. It's a dream he shares with scores of young, hopeful racers like himself. But if other drivers' roads to Indy are merely rocky, Johnson's would seem impassable. At the age of 12, he was paralyzed from the chest down in a motorcycle accident.
In this installment of Jalopnik on DRIVE, we meet the 20-year-old driver who's fighting to make his name in a sport some might think would be out of his grasp. Using a specially-adapted car, Johnson competes in the USF2000 open-wheel series, the first stop along IndyCar's "Road to Indy." If all goes as planned, he'll soon be gunning for a spot in IndyLights, the last stop before a full IndyCar Series ride — at least it was for Marco Andretti, Hélio Castroneves and Johnny O'Connell, among other big names.
But Johnson already knows that plans can change violently, and without warning. Eight years ago, he was competing in a flat-track motorcycle competition at Hiawatha Horse Park, a half-mile track in Sarnia, Ontario. He'd gone into 2005 aiming to win the Supermoto championship, having taken third place in the Junior Red Riders Supermoto Challenge the previous year.
The track was wetted down, with plenty of mud to mix with the typical "pea gravel" racing surface. The 14-time national champion was in third, and about to make an inside break for the lead when he ran out of tear-off sheets for his face shield. As he was wiping off the mud spray, his 250cc bike veered sharply to the right, and, at upward of 80 mph, smashed through a fence and into a post. Slammed forward into the handlebars, Johnson broke his collarbone, right ribs, left ankle and left leg. He also fractured his T5 and T6 vertebrae. He was conscious through the entire ordeal.
"Don't make me stop racing," he told his father, Tim, who had rushed to his side.
Two days later, he underwent an 11-hour surgery. Over the next year, the middle-schooler fought through more surgeries and a skin graft for an infected pressure sore. He still has four rods and 15 screws in his back. In 2009, Johnson had experimental stem cell surgery — in which olfactory mucosal stem cells were delivered into the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds his brain and spinal cord — and adopted an aggressive physical therapy program that's since seen him take a few, grueling steps on his own. Early on, he insisted he would race again, and eventually he set a goal to become the first paralyzed driver to participate in the IndyCar Series.
Johnson's racing dream recalls a similar challenge that beset CART champion Alex Zanardi. After his legs were amputated in a crash in 2001, Zanardi returned to racing in a BMW touring car modified so he could use his prosthetic feet. In 2006, he tested in a BMW Sauber Formula One car adapted with hand controls fitted to the steering wheel.
Early in Johnson's recovery, his father bought a go-kart and procured a set of hand controls originally developed for Zanardi by CRG. On Christmas Eve, 2006, Johnson drove the kart for the first time around the parking lot of his father's paint-coating business near Flint, Michigan.
Johnson says his experience with motorcycles helped him adapt to hand controls. "It's not too different, since I had to use my hands for the clutch and throttle on the bike," he says. "I can feel some parts of the kart, but I can't feel the front when it starts to push. I have to get extra seat time in the kart, and then I usually figure things out."
That parking lot test led to Johnson's first race in 2007 at the East Lansing (Mich.) Kart Track, where he took first place in the Junior SuperCan class, and was named "driver of the year" at the track. In 2008, he finished first in the Rotax Junior class in Michigan and qualified for the Rotax nationals in Wisconsin. In 2009, Johnson moved up to the Great Lakes Pro Series and scored six first-place finishes in the Rotax class, as well as twelve podium finishes in the Tag and Pro classes.
Also in 2009, Johnson entered the Skip Barber formula car series, in a car likewise modified with hand controls. He ran a partial race schedule in 2010, and in 2011 ran the entire Skip Barber summer series, scoring three wins, seven podium finishes and 13 top five finishes. He was third in the overall championship.
A year later, Johnson was racing in USF2000 — aka the 2012 Cooper Tires Presents the USF2000 National Championship powered by Mazda Series — driving the # 54 Universal Coating / Coloplast / FlatOutNation.com / RedLine Oil JDC Motorsports entry in every one of the series' seven rounds, and finishing 15th with 72 points.
He hopes to race one more year in USF2000 and then move up to Indy Lights. From there, his Indy career will be as close as he dares to dream it is.
We caught up with Johnson this past October at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Open Test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where in the third session he topped the roster with a lap time of 1:27.637 — among the fastest laps of the day. That's where he told his story — on the site of the Indy 500, the race whose glittery existence each year pushes him on toward his goal — and where we learned what real dedication to the sport of racing is.
"I'm never going to give up," he says. Racing is my life."