Most fans of racing, including INDYCAR fans, often get the question from our non-racing friends, “why do you enjoy racing?” It’s a question that is often answered in terms of speed, of strategy, of fan access, or one of the other high points of our sport.
In 1932, a young driver named Howdy Wilcox finished runner-up in the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. To differentiate himself from the previous, Indy 500-winning man also named Howdy Wilcox, he assumed a “II” suffix to his name). But before he could contest the 500 next year, he was disallowed from competition because it was discovered he was a diabetic. Although other drivers stormed over the ban, the Speedway stood firm, citing safety concerns, and Wilcox would never race again.
Flash forward to 2011, where a young American driver named Charlie Kimball, a confirmed diabetic, made his debut in the IZOD IndyCar Series, including qualifying for his first 500. He managed his condition from the cockpit of his racer car, including a glucose monitor and the proper nutrients. He’s managed to chase his dream of professional racing, whereas not long ago, people would have seen as a disqualifier from that same dream.
Whether it’s Kimball spreading diabetes awareness or a long line of females showing there should never be a glass ceiling at a race track, INDYCAR, from the lowest rung on the ladder on up, gives us inspiration, be it to do our best, overcome challenges, or simply taking a chance that hasn’t been taken before.
When I read Michael Johnson’s story yesterday, I immediately knew it was in the same vein. Michael Johnson will join many other racers in a crowded field next year in USF2000, an early stop on the Mazda Road to Indy. Like many drivers in that series, Michael has known success before both in motorcycle racing and as a winner in Skip Barber competition. However, unlike other drivers, Michael was paralyzed after an accident at age 12.
It took years and plenty of pain to come back to racing, but come back he did, albeit still paralyzed from the mid-chest down. And now, at the age of 19, Michael will be racing for JDC Motorsports in 2012 in the USF2000 Series. His dream? To become the first paralyzed driver to qualify for the Indy 500. That’s the sort of dream, the sort of simple sentence, that grabs you, and holds on.
There’s determination, and then there’s determination. I don’t know if Michael Johnson will ever make it to the top ranks of the INDYCAR, but I do know he doesn’t have to in order to be a source of inspiration to so many who may face extreme hardships and challenges of their own.
All of the other items—Lotus vs. Chevy vs. Honda, driver signings, on-track strategy, a new chassis design—that’s just the backdrop for what INDYCAR represents. INDYCAR is the opportunity to do what you haven’t done, to challenge yourself, to learn from the bravery and example of others, and to contribute to this wild, unpredictable, running narrative that’s been going for over a hundred years now. There's a soul to INDYCAR--a bright, unconquerable, immortal, unquenchable soul--and it shines so very brightly in stories such as these.
When you talk to folks, be it over Super Bowl weekend, next week, or somewhere down the road, remember stories like Michael Johnson’s. Somewhere in the discussion of engines, new cars, and drivers, remember how far we’ve come, and what a testament INDYCAR is to the triumph of determination and spirit.