Photo courtesy IMSA

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

Leave a comment

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.”

Steinbrenner brings winning tradition to IndyCar Victory Lane

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
Leave a comment

AUSTIN, Texas – Opening Day for the New York Yankees in Major League Baseball is Thursday against the hapless Baltimore Orioles. But the Steinbrenner family can already celebrate a big-time, major league victory in 2019.

George Michael Steinbrenner, IV is the 22-year-old son of Yankees co-owner and co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner. He is the grandson of the legendary Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, whose fiery tenure at the helm of the Yankees restored the team to the prestige and pride it continues to enjoy as the most successful professional sports franchise in the world.

Steinbrenner, IV, is co-owner of Harding Steinbrenner Racing in the NTT IndyCar Series and the youngest team owner in IndyCar history.

When his grandfather was ruling the Yankees, excellence wasn’t expected; it was demanded. Those are traits that define the Steinbrenner family.

On Sunday at Circuit of the Americas, young Steinbrenner became an IndyCar winner in just his third race in the series in the INDYCAR Classic. It was also historic as his driver, Colton Herta, became the youngest driver in history to win an IndyCar race at race at 18 years, 11 months and 25 days. Graham Rahal was 19 years 3 months and 2 days when he won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2008.

“Break up the Yankees” was a popular battle cry around baseball in the glory days of the boys in pinstripes, from Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle to Reggie Jackson to Derek Jeter and A-Rod.

What makes the latest Steinbrenner winner so stunning, is how quickly it happened.

“We didn’t think this was possible so soon,” Steinbrenner told NBC Sports.com from the team’s pit stand seconds after the checkered flag waved for Herta’s victory. “What a drive by Colton and what a job by the crew. They did everything they could to keep us ahead of the 2 car (Josef Newgarden) all day. Wow, I can’t believe it.”

Steinbrenner has the Yankees in his blood and DNA, but his passion has always been IndyCar racing. He was just 16 when he met then 12-year-old Herta at a Skip Barber race at Lime Rock, Connecticut. The two became friends and joined together to begin their climb to IndyCar.

“I interned at Bryan Herta Rallysport for the 2016 season, learning the top to bottom of how a race team operates during the week and during the weekend,” Steinbrenner recalled. “When Colton and I decided that we’d start this crazy journey together in Indy Lights, being able to partner with Andretti Autosport in Indy Lights was huge. They’re a buttoned-down organization, do everything right. To be able to learn from the folks there was a huge jump-start, the perfect jump-start I could have hoped for, for INDYCAR ownership.”

For two years, they joined forces with team owner Michael Andretti in Indy Lights. Andretti helped broker a deal for Steinbrenner and Herta to step up to IndyCar by joining a team owned by Indianapolis paving company owner Mike Harding.

Harding Steinbrenner Racing was announced last summer with tremendous fanfare at Yankee Stadium before a New York Yankees game.

Andretti is still part of the operation as Andretti Technologies supplies engineering and crew support to Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

“None of this would have been possible without Michael Andretti,” Herta said. “I’d like to say thank you to Michael and his team. He elevated us to the top really quick and without them we wouldn’t be here.”

When Steinbrenner announced his goal of taking Herta to the IndyCar, it was a long-term commitment. Herta’s first victory at an 18-year-old could be the start of something great, beginning another winning tradition for the Steinbrenners.

“We’ve had a pretty good start here,” Steinbrenner said. “This is huge, to get this win off our belts. We showed the IndyCar world what we could do.”

Herta qualified fourth and raced his way to third in a race that Will Power dominated. The Team Penske driver led the first 45 laps from the pole while he was pursued by Alexander Rossi.

The two front-runners planned on being the last two drivers in the 24-car field to make their final pit stop.

That plan was foiled, however, when James Hinchcliffe’s Honda ran into the back of Felix Rosenqvist’s Honda, sending it into the barrier in Turn 20. That was the only caution in the 60-lap race. Power and Rossi would go from the top two to 14thand 15thafter making their pit stops.

Power’s race ended on pit lane when a broken half-shaft kept his car from engaging in gear and he went from first to worst in the 24-car field.

That put Herta in the lead under caution. Right behind him was the intimidating sight of the No. 2 Chevrolet driven by Team Penske’s 28-year-old Josef Newgarden, the 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion and the winner of the 2019 season-opener at St. Petersburg, Florida.

“We knew we got on the right side of the pit strategy and had the pace to stay ahead of two extremely fast guys behind us,” Steinbrenner said. “It was a matter of Colton staying out in front and nursing it home.”

When the green flag waved to restart the race with 10 laps left, the 18-year-old was calm and cool as he was able to get a great restart and pull away from Newgarden.

Back in the pit area, Steinbrenner stood on the timing stand in the pits alongside co-owner Mike Harding and team president and race strategist Brian Barnhart. Because COTA is a 20-turn, 3.41-mile road course, it takes a while to complete a lap. Herta had the fastest lap in the race on Lap 54 and it was 108.9853 seconds.

The long course added to the tension as the 60-lap race neared its conclusion.

Steinbrenner, who bears a resemblance to 1980s actor Fisher Stevens, remained cool on the timing stand.

When Herta’s Honda came out of Turn 20 on the final lap to the checkered flag, Steinbrenner could finally celebrate, pumping his fist in the air.

“I was very concerned,” Steinbrenner admitted. “Most of the guys in the paddock, you are concerned with in a situation like that, especially a former champion. It was nerve-racking.

“Wow. It’s a dream come true.”

Steinbrenner got his first win in IndyCar before the New York Yankees.

“Not too far apart, but a couple of days in front,” Steinbrenner laughed.

For a Steinbrenner, there are always more goals to achieve. Sunday’s first victory is like a “regular season” win to the Yankees. That team’s goal is to win the World Series.

Steinbrenner, IV’s goal is to win the biggest race in the world – the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26.

“I think there’s a pretty big race in May,” Steinbrenner said. “I think for us, that’s the next big goal.

“I grew up with two passions: baseball and racing. I thought my family had one pretty well covered. We’ll go and chase another one.”

When a Steinbrenner sets a goal, don’t bet against it.