Micheal Johnson sets his sights on the Indy 500, despite paralyzation


PHOTO Submitted by Michael Johnson

Running in 10th place at a race track in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Mt. Morris native Michael Johnson maneuvers his car through a turn. Johnson was later eliminated from the race when he crashed his vehicle.

Jake Lee, Writer

Driving a race car at speeds of up to 180 mph, with only hand controls to accelerate, brake and change gears, Mt. Morris native Michael Johnson has taken his tragedy and turned it into a quest to race in the Indianapolis 500.

Johnson started racing motorcycles when he was 3 ½ – 4 years old. The more he did it, the better he got and he started accumulating national titles.

One of his favorite races was not one that he won, but one he placed third in. It was on his birthday in 2004 and he was racing in the qualifying round of the Supermoto in Reno, Nevada. What Johnson loved so much about this race was that it was his birthday, and by placing third he moved on to compete in the finals, and got to race in the streets of Reno in and around the buildings. He had just turned 12 and had 14 national championships under his belt.

Then on a fateful day in August 2005, 12-year-old Johnson was in a flat track motocross race in Sarnia, Canada. Mud is a big part of motocross and during his race, Johnson ran out of tear-offs for his face shield (plastic sheets that lay over the face shield of the helmet that can be torn off one by one when they become too dirty to see through to give a racer a clear view).

He tried to wipe the mud off his face shield so he could see, but it smeared instead. The next thing he knew he was skirting between hay bales and into a wooden fence. His chest slammed into his handlebars and the impact severed his spine and broke several bones. He was paralyzed. His back was broken, but not his spirit.

“I always wanted to keep racing,” Johnson said. “I asked my dad not to let this be the end of my racing career and he didn’t. In 2006 he gave me a go-kart with hand controls and in 2007 I was back into racing.”
Now at age 21, he has his eye on one of the biggest races of them all: the Indianapolis 500.

“Right now, I’m in the Pro-Mazda Series, the second step in the racing series to get to Indy,” Johnson explained. “Next year, I hope to advance to the next level, the Indy Lights. After that it’s the Indy 500.” He hopes to be the first ever paralyzed driver to race at Indy.

Driving race cars with hand controls isn’t the only new thing Johnson is doing. This last year, he learned a new sport and got to hang out and train with an Olympic team.

“This year I tried skiing and was with the U.S. Paralympic team. It was really fun,” Johnson said. “It would be cool to do the Olympics one day. I really like to do both (racing and skiing) but racing comes first.”

Johnson attributes his drive and motivation, in spite of everything that has happened to him, to the strong support he gets from his family and friends.

“My dad is my biggest fan,” Johnson said. “He pushes me to keep going and never give up. My parents and everyone around me, they are my biggest support system. Because of them I know that anything is possible. If I really want it, I’m going to go for it! There will be some obstacles I will have to overcome, which is money and me not having the use of my legs, but I think that all of that can be overcome.”

Money is Johnson’s biggest fear when it comes to racing. It can be expensive; to equip cars for him to race adds to the expense, but he is not deterred.

“Never give up…keep going,” Johnson said. “Always have a goal. With a goal everything is possible.”

Nine and a half years have passed since the accident. Johnson has endured and persevered through physical and emotional challenges and says he is grateful with where he finds himself today. He has overcome his injury, is back into racing and is successful at it. Five words Johnson would use to describe himself are: humble, respectful, caring, achiever, but most of all…daredevil. A daredevil that won’t stop racing no matter what life throws his way.