Winning the Indianapolis 500 is a bigger dream for Michael Johnson than walking again.
“Walking would be cool,” said the 22-year-old auto racer from Flint, Mich., “but I’m not really focused on that. If it comes, it comes. Racing is what I’m working for right now.”
Paralyzed from the mid-chest down in a motorcycle accident at the age of 12, Johnson is now preparing for his second season in the Pro Mazda Championship series. The circuit is part of the official stepladder that could lead Johnson to the Indianapolis 500.
Born to race
Johnson has been racing since he was 3-years-old. He racked up 14 national motorcycle championships before he became a teenager.
One day in 2005, Johnson was racing on a half-mile dirt track in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. Shortly after taking the lead on the last lap, Johnson crashed, breaking his ribs, leg, ankle and collarbone.
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Johnson also fractured the fifth and sixth thoracic vertebrae in his back. Today, he has four rods and 15 screws in his back and uses a wheelchair.
But instead of ending his racing career, the accident took Johnson in a new direction.
“Until I got hurt, car racing wasn’t really on my radar,” he said. “I had to think of something to do. Go-karts were the most logical thing that my dad and I found, and then it went right into cars.”
Johnson first drove a go-kart with hand controls around his father’s business on Christmas Eve 2006.
“The light bulb clicked, and I figured out that this is what I was going to be doing,” he said.
One key to the development of Johnson’s racing career was the Skip Barber Racing School in Braselton, Ga.
“They designed the hand controls and really started my racing career,” Johnson said. “I can’t thank everyone from Skip Barber enough.”
Johnson began competing in the Skip Barber racing series in 2009, and he finished third overall in the 2011 season after winning three races. One year later, he received the Spirit Award and was inducted into the Athletes with Disabilities Hall of Fame.
Another turning point in Johnson’s racing career was his stem-cell surgery in 2009 with Dr. Carlos Lima. Johnson traveled to Portugal for the procedure, because it had not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“They went up through my nasal cavity into the brain,” Johnson said. “Then they extracted the stem cells and opened up the spinal cord where the injury happened.
“The thought is to retrain the nerves on how to work,” he added. “So far, it’s a huge improvement. I’ve had a lot of feeling in my hips and some movement in my legs.”
Johnson has also prepared for his second season on the Pro Mazda circuit by training with the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing and Biathlon teams after earning a scholarship from Disabled Sports USA.
“It’s really helped my endurance and strength,” he said. “It’s a different form of training, and it’s fun, because I’ve always loved winter growing up in Michigan.”
Breaking new ground
As Johnson chases his racing dream in the No. 54 car for JDC Motorsports, he admires other trailblazing drivers like Alex Zinardi and Danica Patrick.
“Zinardi was a phenomenal athlete,” he said. “I love his determination to never give up, even after he lost his legs.”
“Patrick is showing people that you don’t have to be a guy to race,” Johnson added, “and in my case, you don’t have to be walking to race. She is paving the pathway for females in this sport, and hopefully I can do the same for injured athletes.”
Johnson hopes to compete next year in the Indy Lights series, which is the final step before the Verizon IndyCar circuit.
Supporting Johnson’s efforts are sponsors such as Braun Ability and Universal Coating, his father’s company. He also is being represented by Klint Briney of BRANDed Management.
“He is doing a great job of branding my image in the chair instead of as a normal driver,” Johnson said. “I want to show everyone that I am different than any other driver – but I’m also the same.”
“I’ve been working hard in the off-season to improve my driving,” he said. “I want to get in the top five and win some races. I can’t wait to get out there and show everyone what I can do.”