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.”

IMSA Prototype Season in Review

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IMSA Wire Service

It was a year of change for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda. The longtime sprint series evolved in 2018 to six one-hour, 45-minute endurance races that allowed teams to run single or two-driver combinations with a required minimum-time pit stop. The result: record-high car counts in the LMP3 class with Kris Wright ultimately winning the series championship for Extreme Speed Motorsports, while Cameron Cassels took home the LMP3 Masters title. In the MPC class, meanwhile, series veteran Jon Brownson won his first championship in the final season for the class with a breakthrough win one week ago in the season finale at Road Atlanta.

This season-in-review takes a look back at the path each of the three champions took on their way to history.

1. Daytona International Speedway, January 6

Winners
LMP3: Roman De Angelis, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Gary Gibson, No. 44 Ave Motorsports Ave-Riley AR2
MPC: Robert Masson, No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Not only was the season-opener during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 weekend the first endurance race for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda, it also was the first race for the series at the iconic Daytona International Speedway. Wright, driving the No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3 scored his first podium of the season alongside co-driver Daniel Morad with a third-place finish behind Porsche GT3 Challenge driver and winner Roman De Angelis and co-drivers Austin McCusker and David Droux, finishing second for the upstart Forty7 Motorsports team. Masson scored the MPC win, lapping all but one car, while Brownson came home fifth.

2. Sebring International Raceway, March 16

Winners
LMP3: Leo Lamelas / Pato O’Ward, No. 7 Charles Wicht Racing Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: James McGuire Jr., No. 26 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Dave House, No. 86 ONE Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The round at Sebring featured a late-race restart that saw eventual 2018 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype Challenge champion O’Ward drive from fourth to first in the closing laps to secure the win for full-time driver Lamelas. Wright, meanwhile, finished third for the second consecutive time to start the season with a new co-driver, Michael Whelden. The No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry again finished second with McCusker now joined by TJ Fischer, who would go on to run the full season with the team. Coming out of Sebring, McCusker would lead Wright by four points, 64-60. Between Sebring and the next round at Barber Motorsports Park, Wright would decide to contest the full season for Extreme Speed Motorsports.

It was a special victory in the MPC class with House becoming IMSA’s oldest race winner at the age of 75. Foreshadowing a points race that what would ultimately come down to the season finale at Road Atlanta, the top five in the MPC standings are separated by two points leaving Sebring, with Brownson seventh, 12 points out, after a ninth-place finish.

3. Barber Motorsports Park, April 21

Winners
LMP3: Kris Wright / Yann Clairay, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Rob Hodes, No. 51 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Michal Chlumecky, No. 31 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The only standalone event for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda would prove to be the turning point in the LMP3 class. Leading all but one practice session on the weekend and starting the race from the pole, Wright and co-driver Clairay dominated the event, only losing the lead briefly on a cycle of green flag pit stops. Wright’s biggest competition for the championship, meanwhile, the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports team, seemed poised to score its third consecutive runner-up finish of the season to hold onto the LMP3 points lead, but contact between Fischer and an MPC car with five minutes remaining relegated the team to a 16th-place finish. Entering the weekend down four points in the standings, Wright left Barber up six points, 95-89, over Lamelas.

Chlumecky scored his first MPC class win since 2012, while teammate Brownson, the Sebring pole winner, capped off a Eurosport Racing 1-2 finish placing second in the team’s No. 34 entry. Masson rounded out the podium with a third-place finish in the No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02 to regain the class lead. Brownson left Barber eight points behind Masson, fifth in the standings.

4. Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, July 8

Winners
LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The long overdue first victory for Forty7 Motorsports finally came at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for McCusker and Fischer, but a second-place finish for Wright meant McCusker could only gain three points on the series leader, with Wright keeping the deficit at 13 points. Dean Baker would score the LMP3 Masters win, the fourth winner in four races following Gibson at Daytona, McGuire Jr. at Sebring and Hodes at Barber. Cassels finished on the LMP3 Masters podium for the first time in 2018 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, finishing the race seventh overall and third in LMP3 Masters.

Leading the MPC standings coming into Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Robert Masson enlisted son and defending series champion Kyle Masson as a co-driver for the remainder of the season. The plan appeared to work with the duo crossing the line first, but upon post-race analysis of drive-time requirements, it was concluded that Kyle Masson did not record the minimum 40 minutes of drive time and the car was moved to the back of the MPC results. That penalty elevated Jacobs and French to the race win in Performance Tech’s No. 77 entry and moved Brownson, who finished second for the consecutive race, to the class championship lead. Coming out of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the top six in points were separated by just two points with two races remaining.

5. VIRginia International Raceway, August 18

Winners
LMP3: Kris Wright / Stephen Simpson, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Wright enlisted IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship regular Stephen Simpson as co-driver at VIR and delivered a knockout punch in the LMP3 title fight, scoring the win and opening a 23-point lead over McCusker, who finished sixth. Baker would win his second consecutive race in LMP3 Masters with a second-place finish overall alongside Zacharie Robichon. Hodes would lead the LMP3 Masters points by two points over Jim Garrett, eight points over Cassels and nine points over Joel Janco.

Robert Masson seemed poised to take the points lead and win alongside Kyle Masson as the duo drove brilliantly in the rain, building a nearly one-lap lead. A mechanical issue with 17 minutes remaining, however, set up a late-race sprint to the finish with French winning on the last lap for Jacobs.

With only one race remaining, House moved into the class lead by three points, 143-140, over Jacobs. The top seven teams were mathematically eligible for the championship and separated by a mere eight points.

6. Road Atlanta, October 12

Winners
LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Cameron Cassels, No. 75 Performance Tech Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Jon Brownson, No. 34 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The second win of the season for the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry and co-driver McCusker and Fischer was not enough to take the championship away from Wright, who finished second at Road Atlanta to sweep podiums in all six races on the series schedule.

Cassels scored his first LMP3 Masters win of the season, and despite entering the weekend eight points behind in the standings, would also win the LMP3 Masters championship after each of the title contenders ran into various issues on-track.

Brownson called it an “honor” to win the final race for the MPC class. Brownson, who started in the first race for the series in 2006, scored his first win of the season in the No. 34 Eurosport Racing entry to win the final championship for the class.