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Cheap Seats: Johnson Uses Hand Controls To Put Pedal To The Metal

August 13, 2012

By Michael Page

In 2005, when Michael Johnson was 12, his motorcycle veered off a Canadian race track, and the ensuing crash took his ability to walk. But he wouldn't let it take his dreams.

"As long as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a professional motorcycle racer," Johnson said. "I've been racing since I was about 3 years old."

That dream to become a professional driver, coupled with Johnson's determination to live life on his terms, has come true. Johnson has traded in his motorcycle for a racecar and this year became the only paralyzed professional driver in the country on the open-wheel racing series. He'll be competing Labor Day weekend at the Grand Prix of Baltimore.

As a young rider, Johnson's goal of becoming a professional motorcycle racer was in full gear. By age 12, he had won 14 national championships. His dream was beginning to become a reality. He was on the fast track to the pro tour.

Then, in Sardinia, Ontario, as Michael was making his move to take the lead going into the race's final lap, his bike hit a rut and he veered off the track. The results were horrific.

"I ran out of tear-offs on my shield," Johnson said, "and I went through a wooden fence that was outlining the outside of the horse track. It was a half-mile horse track.

"When I went through the fence, I hit the handlebars with my chest so hard it just broke my back, and I was paralyzed from that second. I knew right away there was definitely something wrong. When I couldn't stand up, I knew something was up."

His injuries were numerous. Johnson suffered fractures to his t5 and t6 vertebrae, which caused paralysis from his mid-chest down. The crash also left him with multiple broken bones -- his collarbone, ribs, ankle and leg. It didn't take long for Johnson to decide, with support from his parents, that this would not be the end of his racing career.

"I had a lot of stuff going through my mind," he said. "I decided that I was going to keep going. My dad was there the entire time, pushing me. He wouldn't let me stop. I think that really helped me out in the long run. He pushed me to do everything on my own and to be independent and to live the life that I had. My parents were great. They really pushed me not to think that way, and it really helped me in the long run for sure."

Not long after being released following two months of initial hospitalization, Johnson suffered complications from a sore that had developed as a result of the time he spent on a backboard.

"I had to go back in the hospital, because the sore was so bad I was getting really sick," he said. "I spent another month in the hospital trying to get that recovered. So the rest of 2005 and all of 2006, I was trying to get everything healed up."

On Christmas Eve 2006, his parents gave him a gift that jump-started his dreams back into gear -- his first Go Kart. After the doctors cleared Johnson, it wasn't long before he left the Go Kart for the racecar and got his dreams back on track.

"In 2009, I started racing cars," he said. "Skip Barber Racing School allowed us to set up the car and put the hand controls in it, and that was the start of my car-racing career."

Johnson became a professional in January of this year.

"My first professional race was the winter series when we ran in January," Johnson said. "We ran four races in Florida. It was my rookie race. I had a couple of spins and really learned a lot. Since then, I've been getting stronger and stronger."

Johnson said his goal was to join the IndyCar Series and win the Indy 500. The car he drives is custom designed to be controlled fully by his upper body with hand controls.

"The throttle is on the left side of the steering wheel," he said. "The clutch is a lever that's down by my left leg, and I can use my left hand. The brakes are on the steering wheel and the shifting is just like any other driver on the right side of the car."

Johnson was in Baltimore for last year's inaugural Grand Prix, but only as a spectator. This year, he said, he hopes to leave his mark on the second edition of the Charm City event.

"I'm very, very excited to run in Baltimore this year," he said. "It would be nice to win it. I'm the only driver with the hand controls."

Johnson has had a lot of support on his journey from the hospital bed to the racetrack, and said he was grateful to many for the help he had received. He mentioned his sponsor, Coloplast; John Church and JDC Racing, his race team; and his manager, Matthias Czabock, as key contributors to his success.

The now-19-year-old from Mount Morris, Mich., not only has aspirations to make history on the IndyCar tracks, but also to help inspire as many people as he can while following the road to his dreams.

"A lot of [people] are inspired by my story," Johnson said, "and how I didn't give up and how it's possible to have a better life once an injury happens. You can still live a really good life and enjoy things. I'm just trying to spread that message around. The more I get out and the more people that see me race and [hear] my story … they're loving it."

More Cheap Seats:
Johnson Uses Hand Controls To Put Pedal To The Metal
Webster Lives His Fairytale As Coach Of Poly Engineers
Ex-Gilman Ace Miller Shoots For Golf Moon
Szefc Aims To Keep State Stars At Home
Wiseman Tournament To Aid Young Bowlers
Here's League Where Big Kids Get To Play

Issue 176: August 2012