Photo courtesy IMSA

After scoring first pro win, paraplegic race car driver seeks more

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Michael Johnson’s big grin never seems to disappear because he is doing what he loves.

The smile sticks out as he drives the No. 54 Audi for JDC-Miller Motorsports in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge. So does his other set of wheels – the wheelchair he uses when he’s not behind the wheel.

“I do it (racing) to get myself out of the wheelchair. It’s a big thing,” said Johnson, who is paralyzed from the waist down. “I’m a totally separate person (in the car). I don’t have to deal with any of the stresses in life. I can really just focus on what I’m really good at – driving a race car and having fun doing it.”

MORE: Paraplegic racer Michael Johnson earns 1st career win; ‘Been thinking about this since I broke my back’

The native of Flint, Michigan, is one of a handful of disabled race car drivers competing worldwide at the top levels. One of his heroes, former open-wheel star Alex Zanardi, lost his lower legs in a crash in Germany nearly two decades ago. Now 51, Zanardi, a two-time CART champion who also drove in Formula One, returned to racing, won in world touring cars and is still driving.

Johnson enjoys his first win with teammate Stephen Simpson.

Turns out the 25-year-old Johnson is good enough to win, too. Johnson and co-driver Stephen Simpson combined for their first win on July 21 at Lime Rock, Connecticut. It was their third straight podium of the season and another positive sign for Johnson in his recovery from a devastating crash.

“It’s been a fantastic evolution,” said Simpson, who’s helped coach Johnson for the past seven years. “We’ve gone on a long road together.”

Johnson won 14 national motorcycle championships by age 12 and was on the cusp of landing a deal for a permanent ride with a manufacturer when his budding career skidded to a dramatic halt on a dirt track in Canada in 2005. He was involved in a crash in Sarnia, Ontario, suffering a broken collarbone, broken left ankle, broken left leg, broken ribs and, worst of all, two fractured vertebrae in his back, which caused the paralysis.

The first thing out of his mouth was, “Don’t make me quit racing,” said his father, Tim, a former motorcycle racer.

Four rods and 15 screws were inserted in Michael’s back during an 11-hour operation. Johnson spent a couple of months in the hospital and another month at home in bed.

“It happens in racing, so I’m not going to dwell on it,” Johnson said. “That was 13 years ago. I’ve moved on.”

On Christmas Eve 2006, Johnson took a spin in a specially equipped go-kart with hand controls in the parking lot of his father’s phosphate coating business, which has allowed the family to help him pursue his dreams.

“It was a good feeling,” he said. “That’s when everything started.”

After getting clearance from his doctors, Johnson won a go-kart title and his career on four wheels began a rapid ascent.

IndyCar team owner Sam Schmidt, who also was paralyzed in a crash, advised Johnson to get involved with Skip Barber Racing. After lawyers approved his entry into the formula car series, Johnson ran a partial schedule in 2010 with modified hand controls. He competed in the entire summer series the next year, winning at Watkins Glen and twice at Elkhart Lake among seven podium finishes.

“It’s not a surprise,” Tim Johnson said. “There’s no doubt in my mind he would have been a professional (motorcycle) champion. He had the passion and, more importantly, he had the work ethic to make it happen.”

Michael Johnson spent two seasons in USF2000 and two more in Pro Mazda as he chased an open-wheel ride with an eye on competing some day in the Indianapolis 500, a dream he still has.

Acquisition three years ago of a hand-controlled driving system produced by Guidosimplex of Italy gave Johnson an edge he needed. His steering wheel features two rings, one for the throttle, the other to brake, and paddle shifters allow him to grip the steering wheel to navigate the serious turns on the road courses used by the series.

“What he’s able to do is nothing short of amazing when you think he’s only operating with a third of the sensory perception that a normal person has when they’re sitting in the seat of a race car,” team engineer Cole Scrogham said.

The 10-race Continental Tire Challenge series – Johnson and Simpson compete in the street tuner class, where the cars can reach speeds of around 140 mph – is the foundation for grooming amateur drivers to compete and move up to IMSA’s WeatherTech Series. Teams are required to make a driver switch every race, and Johnson and Simpson are able to accomplish it in competitive times thanks to Johnson’s trainer Josh Gibbs, who pulls him from the car and carries him behind the wall on pit road.

There have been setbacks. Johnson has crashed twice in the past three years, most recently in practice for the IMSA season-opener at Daytona in January. He was second on the time sheets when his brake linkage snapped. The crash broke a leg.

Johnson, who underwent stem cell surgery in Portugal in 2009 in hopes of improving his chances of walking again, recovered and returned to race at Mid-Ohio in May after being cleared by series officials. Johnson responded by qualifying on the front row and leading a race for the first time.

“It’s amazing to see his resilience,” said Mikey Taylor, who drives in the series and has coached and spotted for Johnson in the past. “For sure, Michael still has a ways to go to be a professional like Stephen, but in the car he’s equally as good and holds his own. I definitely think he’s got a very strong career in sports cars … in the higher ranks.”

Johnson also has a passion for spreading his message.

“It’s a good feeling to know that I’m really one of only a select few that have gone this far,” he said. “I’m trying to help out as many people that are paralyzed in wheelchairs that I possibly can. Whatever challenges you’re having, don’t give up. There’s always something that can be done.”

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.