LEXINGTON, Ohio (WCMH) — Racing season at Mid Ohio officially kicks off this weekend with the IMSA Sportscar Series. Michael Johnson will be one of those drivers trying to take the checkered Saturday.
But before he made his way to Lexington, Johnson stopped by Nationwide Children’s Hospital on Thursday to talk about his journey as a paralyzed driver.
He was injured in a motorcycle crash at 12 years old and was paralyzed from the mid chest down, but he never let it stop him from racing. He was the first and only paralyzed driver licensed by IndyCar before making the switch to sportscar racing in 2016.
“The biggest message I can give out is to always keep pushing and never give up,” Johnson said.
From go carts, to IndyCar, to sports car racing, Johnson has always kept pushing.
“If you tell yourself that you can do it, that gives you just that extra push to keep going and that will inspire other people as well,” he said.
The 29 year old has inspired kids like Michael Fenster, a former OHSAA state champion in track.
“What my goal would be is it’s not even a ‘Oh you have a adaptive program? It’s like oh you don’t?,'” Fenster said. “Growing up you’re just like ‘I’m going to go to do track’ and everyone’s like ‘OK. Go for it.'”
The New Albany grad is just one of many kids who have benefitted from the help of Dr. Jonathan Napolitano.
“We found a gap that needed filled and jumped right in,” Dr. Napolitano said.
In 2018, Dr. Napolitano helped nationwide Children’s Hospital launch the first and only adaptive sports medicine program in the U.S.
“I think the fact that they view themselves as an athlete and we can support them as an athlete really makes the onus on the rest of us as a society to start viewing this population as athletes as they are,” he said.
Part of seeing them as athletes is creating the technology to make that possible, like the steering wheel in Johnson’s car that allows him to accelerate, brake and shift gears.
The hand control system is actually an advantage for him because of his background in motorcycle racing where he won 14 national titles by 12 years old. But there are pitfalls as well.
“I don’t have a lot of feeling for what the car is doing so if the car is sliding around or if the car is doing something it shouldn’t be doing, sometimes it takes me a little bit longer to understand that and recognize it,” Johnson said. “That’s always hard to set the car up so that it handles the way you want it to in the race.”
But adapting to his situation is what’s allowed Johnson to thrive.
“Showcasing what I can do and what I have overcome to someone that is maybe a freshly injured patient . . . shows them that I never gave up and they surely can keep going,” he said.