I’ve been slow in posting this driver announcement, and I’m sure that if you follow the Mazda Road to Indy program at all, you’ve heard of Michael Johnson’s signing with JDC MotorSports and that he’s a paraplegic. I was curious about Mr. Johnson’s story and wanted to do some digging and find out more about his story.
As many of you know, I’m a big fan not only of auto racing, but also of motorcycle racing. This is why I find Mr. Johnson’s early career so fascinating. Thanks to the growth of action sports and the X-Games, motocross, supercross, and especially freestyle motorcross, have really surged in popularity and participation. One category of motorcycle racing that doesn’t get a lot of attention, but is one of the most challenging, is Supermoto. Supermoto is to motorcycle racing what rallycross is to auto racing. Riders compete on a circuit that is part tarmac and part dirt, requiring riders to demonstrate supreme bike control as their grip levels constantly change.
This is where Michael Johnson, and Jeff Ward of IndyCar and X-Games fame, got his start in racing. Michael started racing small 65cc and 85cc bikes at the age of ten, and by time he was twelve he was ready to step up. On his 12th birthday he was began racing 150cc Supermoto and scored a podium finish in his first event, the Junior Red Riders Supermoto Challenge. His success at that first race and his top-ten finish at the subsequent national Red Riders Challenge Final in Las Vegas, gave him the confidence to focus his 2005 efforts on challenging for the Supermoto national championship, sprinkling in some dirt-racing here and there.
On August 13, 2005, everything changed.
That weekend, Michael was competing in a flat-track dirt race at the 1/2-mile Hiawatha Horse Park in Sarnia, Ontario. After making a pass for the lead on the final lap, he hit a rut while attempting to clear his visor. Hitting the rut, threw his bike off track and into a fence, missing the hay bails, and threw Michael up and over the handlebars. The impact broke his collarbone, ribs, left ankle and leg, and tragically his T5 and T6 vertebrae. The fractured vertebrae also damaged his spinal cord, leaving Michael paralyzed from the mid-chest down.
A little more than a year later, Michael was racing once again! On Christmas Eve in 2006, he got in the seat of a specially prepared racing car outfitted with hand controls similar to what Alex Zanardi had developed following his injury. He took to it immediately, and was a race winner in his first year of competition after his injury. Over the next couple of years, he continued to pile up the hardware winning several races and finding the podium in many more.
By 2009, he was ready to move up to cars and began racing part-time in the Skip Barber series. In 2011, he competed full-time in the Skip Barber Summer Series and came in third in the championship after scoring three wins, seven podiums, and thirteen top-fives! Now, by entering the Cooper Tires Presents the USF2000 National Championship, first rung of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder program, Michael has taken the first step in his quest to be the first paraplegic to compete in the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.
Certainly, Michael’s condition will make him a sentimental favorite for many, but make no mistake about his being a skilled and legit racer! Racing with JDC MotorSports this year puts him in a great position to learn the USF2000 car quickly, and to continue to hone and improve his racecraft. In fact, the process has already began. Just this afternoon, the Copper Tires Winter Fest Race #1 took place and Mr. Johnson got his first taste of how these cars behave in the heat of battle. He finished 12th out of 20 cars that took the grid. Not bad for the first time out, and I’m sure we’ll see him improve his pace over the week and the Winter Fest wraps up in Sebring on Wednesday and heads to Palm Beach International Raceway for the final rounds this weekend.