Church and Johnson. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Paralyzed driver Michael Johnson makes sports car debut this weekend

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One of the more interesting stories this weekend in IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca comes with the debut of Michael Johnson, who’s paralyzed from the waist down, but races with modified cars.

The new No. 54 Universal Coating BMW 228i Johnson will race this weekend will premiere in the Continental Tire Challenge ST class.

The ex-Mazda Road to Indy driver and INDYCAR’s only licensed paralyzed driver shifts over to make his sports car debut with JDC/Miller Motorsports and co-driver Stephen Simpson, who will pull double duty this weekend between JDC/Miller’s BMW and its Oreca FLM09 in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Johnson has been paralyzed since being injured in a motorcycle race at age 12.

“I’m super excited that it’s finally coming together,” said Johnson, a 23-year-old resident of Flint, Michigan. “I spent time with Stephen Simpson following his recent victory at Long Beach, and the team has a lot of good mojo going into the race.

“It’s fun to get back on the racetrack – my last race was last year at Mazda Raceway in Pro Mazda. It’s a fun track, and I always like going there.”

His race car is specially equipped with hand controls, provided by GuidoSimplex. Because Johnson is paralyzed from the waist down, his car has a complicated brake, gearshift and throttle system. The special hand-controls on the former motorcycle racing champion’s car had to be perfected and he had to travel to Spain to test them.

“Johnson’s more than ready,” said team owner John Church. “He is a relentless competitor and he ups everyone’s game, when he’s competing. He’s an important part of this team and we can’t wait to get him on the track at Laguna.”

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans

LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.