Michael Johnson wants more. His first taste of success as a paralyzed race driver, earned last weekend at Lime Rock Park in IMSA’s Continental Tire Series, is something he plans to use a springboard to the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. And the Indy 500. And anything else that piques his interest in motor racing.
Through the use of hand controls supplied by Guido Simplex that operate the brake and clutch, the young Michigan native has raced on the first two steps of Mazda’s Road to Indy. More recently, Johnson moved from the MRTI to compete in IMSA’s touring cars where the same controls were used to win in the No. 54 Audi RS3 LMS he shares with Stephen Simpson at JDC-Miller Motorsports.
It took a strong opening stint by Johnson and a stellar performance by Simpson to cross the finish line a scant 0.06s seconds ahead of the No. 12 Europarts.com Audi RS3 LMS, and with the first one down, the hunt for a second has begun.
“That’s my plan. I’m so glad that I can finally show people that it is possible, that it’s not all talk,” he told RACER. “There is actual evidence that I have won a race in a professional sanctioned event with IMSA. It feels great and I can’t wait until I move up to the WeatherTech Championship whenever that time comes and continue to break barriers.”
A youth spent racing motorcycles and working hand controls would, after suffering a spinal injury that placed him in a wheelchair at the age of 12, come to serve Johnson when he made the transition to four-wheel competition.
In pressing a ring on the front of the steering wheel to accelerate, pulling a ring behind the wheel to brake, using left and right paddles to upshift and downshift, and gripping the wheel to nail apexes and catch slides, Johnson’s hand and arm strength is remarkable. And like a pianist traveling at 150mph, the speed and precision found with his finger movements — a flurry of digits controlling the Audi RS3 LMS — is stunning.
“A lot of my coordination comes from the bike world since everything is on the handlebars,” he said. “I’m so used to using my hands and fingers for everything. That was a big help when it comes to my coordination, memory, and skill that I have. I’m doing so much with my hands, it’s just a normal thing to do.
“I can imagine when other people come onboard and think about how they’d do everything, it’s pretty daunting. It makes me proud I can do that, and I’m really good at what I do. It’s all the mental preparation I do with my trainer.”
Another groundbreaking achievement associated with Johnson’s win came in the normalcy of what took place during the event.
As the only paralyzed driver in IMSA (and in most racing series, frankly), the sanctioning body permits the use of a helper to carry Johnson from pit wall and place him into the car during pit stops, and also to perform the extraction when it’s time for Simpson to take over. As other drivers sprint in and out of their cars, Johnson must rely on another pair of legs to make the delivery, and if it takes any additional time, they’re forced to make it up on the track.
“We’ve been training so much on test days and even the practice sessions during the race weekend for pit stops, and the entire JDC-Miller crew has been doing a phenomenal job,” he said. “My trainer, Josh Gibbs, is the main driver changer. He’s my legs when I get out of the car. I’ll get halfway out, he’ll run me to the wall and run back to make sure Stephen is all belted in and ready to go. It all comes down to teamwork and preparation.”
Outside of IMSA, Johnson says he hasn’t abandoned his original dream of competing in the Indy 500. And with JDC’s longstanding presence in junior open-wheel racing, and its new status as a winner in the WeatherTech Championship’s Prototype class and the Continental Tire Series’ TCR category, Johnson might have some intriguing in-house options if he can raise a budget for IndyCar.
“With me starting with Skip Barber and then moving to USF2000 and then Pro Mazda, it was a great starting point for me,” he said. “And IndyCar was my goal and I think it still is at some point. I would love to be able to roll into the month of May and see what I can do. Maybe one day, if the opportunity presents itself. All of the success and learning that I’ve had over the years in the Mazda Road to Indy definitely has helped so I could achieve the win I had on Saturday.”
Like Alex Zanardi who returned to racing after losing his lower legs in a crash and won, or Frederic Sausset, who became the first quadriplegic driver to compete at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, or Marine veteran Liam Dwyer who won in the same Continental Tire Series with a prosthetic leg, Johnson wants his victory to serve a higher purpose. After Lime Rock, he’s become another form of inspiration that wheelchair-bound athletes can go beyond stick-and-ball sports to achieve great success in any form of motor racing.
“It’s something that I think comes along with me being in a wheelchair and showing people what you can do,” he said. “It’s really inspiring for me to tell people, ‘Yes, you really can do this.’ When it all comes together and you get that win, nothing else matters. Nobody talks about anything else but that win.
“I’m really proud to be that inspiration people can look up towards. I’ve had so many people contact me since the win asking about what I do in the race car, how I do it, and that makes me really proud.”
Listen to the full interview with Johnson below: