Thursday, October 18, 2012

Never Giving Up: Interview With Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson turned heads as one of the fastest drivers in the recent Chris Griffis Mazda Road to Indy Test, but he's also been turning heads as just a great story overall. Johnson has been paralyzed since he was hurt in a motorcycle accident at the age of 12, but he hasn't let that stop his participation in the Mazda Road to Indy, most recently as a USF2000 driver with JDC Motorsports.

On his website, he's quoted as saying "I'm never going to give up. Racing is my life". It's a powerful story Johnson is living, but the 19 year-old Michigan native isn't content with just being an inspirational story. He wants big results on the track, too, and if his test at Indy is any indication, he can get them.

After that sterling test at IMS, we got with Michael to ask some questions about his performance this year, his Mazda Road to Indy future, and much more.

-Michael, congrats on a great showing at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test last week. What did you take away from the test, and how did you feel afterwards?

MJ: Thanks so much! Indy was such a great place! So much history there! The biggest thing that I took from the test was my confidence with myself that I can really do it and in the car with my driving style. I felt much more comfortable then I have all season. This was the first time I have been upfront all year and it feels so good! I want more!

Johnson talking things over during the IMS test.
-Let's go back and look at your 2012 body of work for a moment. Can you bring up some highlights/lowlights from your USF2000 season?

MJ: 2012 was a good year in the sense that I proved that I can race with everyone and it gave us (me and the team) a great starting point with the hand controls. A big area that I was struggling with was getting up to speed quick. In every session it took me quite a while compared to other drivers. With that being said, that hurt me in qualifying.

-In which area or areas do you think you've most honed your craft in the last year?

MJ: Areas that I have improved the most are my braking and corner exits. The beginning of the year, my brake points were quite weak..towards the end of the season, I was right with my teammates on my braking. An area that we found beginning of the season were my corner exits. With my driving style with these hand controls, it seems to work really well on big open course like IMS and Road America.

-So how are things looking as far as your 2013 racing plans go?

MJ: My racing plans for 2013 are looking good! I plan on running USF2000 with JDC Motorsports again, maybe do some kart races and even some ChumpCar races as well for fun!

After a great test at Indy, Johnson plans to be
back for more USF2000 action in 2013.
-Now, you're the first paralyzed driver on the Mazda Road to Indy, but you also still compete on the same playing field, same car, same courses as anyone else. What you do is likely inspirational to a lot of folks, but do you balance that realization with the desire to simply be seen as a competitor and prospect?

MJ: I do balance that realization every time I go on the track. I have worked so hard to get to this point and for me to share my story that anything is possible, I think it's making me a better competitor.

-As far as the feel of the car, does any limited feeling in your back/hip area change how you are able to react to the car, and what sort of adjustments have you made to address that?

MJ: With me being paralyzed, I have lost some feeling and pressure in my hips/butt area. More feeling has been coming back slowly but I have adjusted pretty well from the feel in the steering wheel and just overall pressure through my body through all the vibrations.

-Folks who don't know about your injury might not know too much about your history, but how long did it take to get a clean bill of health to get back to racing, and do you still see/feel changes in your condition?

MJ: Well, I broke my back August 13, 2005. It took me until Christmas of 2006 to get a full clean bill of health to get back doing things. I started racing in early 2007. My overall condition is constantly changing. It's hard to tell exactly what is changing but I can tell the difference of a period of time which in turn helps out my driving.

Johnson was 2nd fastest overall at the test for USF2000.
-With a full year of USF2000 in the books, is there anything you'd change in terms of the schedule or races?

MJ: If I was to change anything in USF2000 I would change the length of the races (even though that can't happen with these cars). I think I would like a long session coming from racing bikes where we are going for ever. Another thing I would like is more races and closer together with a big gap separating some events.

-Do you have a timeline in your head of how you'd like your progression up the Mazda Road to Indy to go?

MJ: The way I would like to profess up the Mazda Road To Indy is to run every step (USF2000, Star Mazda and Indy Lights). I think I would get very good seat time and have a lot of fun!

-I'm curious--how long have you been rocking the #54 on track, and does it hold any particular meaning for you?

MJ: The #54 does have a lot of meaning to me. I had #54 all the way up through bikes since I first started. Another big meaning for me is its the number I broke my back with. I know I won't be able to keep the number through my entire car racing career but its really cool to be rocking the #54 in USF2000!

-When you wake up in the morning, what's your inspiration? When you train and work for your racing career, what keeps that inner driver going?

MJ: When I wake up, my inspiration is to win the next championship, so I'm working and training as hard as I can. My family (dad, mom, grandpa) and friends are another huge motivation factor, they keep me going and support me the entire way!

-Let's try an easier one--were you pulling for Will Power or Ryan Hunter-Reay to be IZOD IndyCar Series champ this year?

MJ: I was pulling for Ryan Hunter-Reay this year all the way! :) It was a great hard fight between Ryan and Will for sure!

-A pretty smart guy I know suggested Alex Zanardi should jump in your USF2000 machine as a warm-up for an attempt at the Indy 500. What do you think?

MJ: I would love Alex Zanardi to drive with my setup! I think he would love it!

-It wouldn't be fair to have you answer all these questions and not get your plug in. Where should people go to follow your career, support your sponsors, and all that good stuff?

MJ: My website is the perfect place to follow me! It's www.michaeljohnsonracing.com.

Thanks again to Michael for the interview, and make sure to follow him on Twitter at @racer54iscool. Best of luck in 2013, Michael!

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