The fast life of Michael Johnson, paralyzed race car driver

(Article courtesy of The Globe and Mail – Sep. 03 2014) – When Michael Johnson lay paralyzed from the chest down a few days after a devastating motorcycle racing accident, his doctor advised him to accept his new reality and live according to its rules.

He could no longer play tuba in his school band because his diaphragm would not be strong enough to force air through the instrument. And motor racing? That was even more out of the question.

The doctor underestimated the 12-year-old Johnson’s resolve. The injured boy ordered his father to bring the instrument to the hospital and when the physician arrived for rounds, he was greeted by the deep oom-pah-pah of Johnson’s tuba.

It was the last time anyone told Johnson that anything was beyond his reach.

Two years later, he was racing karts and seven years on, he’s a regular in the Pro Mazda Series, just two steps below IndyCar. Some find that feat amazing, but not Johnson.

“The only difference between me and other drivers is that they step out of their cars and walk away and I hop in a wheelchair and roll away,” Johnson said.

“I wanted to get back to racing, whatever it took. I am glad that I am able to do what I am doing now and I want to get even farther: I would like to get to Indy Lights and win races, or IndyCar or the top levels of sports cars and make a living at it.”

His JDC Motorsport Pro Mazda car has a hand-controlled electronic throttle on the left of the steering wheel and a pair of shifter paddles on the right. To brake, Johnson pushes on the steering column. In Pro Mazda practice sessions this year, Johnson has been as high as third on the timesheets, but he hasn't been able to translate that speed into top grid spots in qualifying or race finishes. The hand-controlled system got him in the car, but it doesn’t create a level playing field.

“I kind of have it down, but the problem we are having is that I am not able to get off the brakes very smoothly,” he said. “The G-forces and the forces of the track and bumps and everything all factor into the resistance I have. Even when you are steering, you push it in a little bit [which engages the brakes slightly] and I really have to try not to do that.”

Johnson ended the 2014 season 13th in points with a best finish of 10th in races that usually featured 18 or 19 cars.

It all began when his father, Tim, got ahold of a modified steering wheel with hand controls used by driver Alex Zanardi – who lost both legs in a 2001 crash during a Championship Auto Racing Teams event in Germany – and he began to tinker with it to adapt it to his son’s needs. The motorcycle-type twist grip throttle was ditched for a snowmobile trigger-style because it was difficult for Johnson to keep on the gas and steer with his wrist cranked over.

As Johnson graduated to cars in the Skip Barber Championship and the U.S. F2000 Series, the refinements continued and evolved into the set-up he now uses. In all, the Johnsons have invested close to $20,000 to convert the Pro Mazda car. They’re still not done.

The 21-year-old from Michigan doesn’t have the same problem in his road car. Because Johnson has excellent upper body strength, his Volkswagen Golf GTI has a straightforward set of levers that control the brake and gas. He also can toss his wheelchair in the backseat, so the car needed no special outfitting and the cost of set-up was about $1,000.

While modifications for open-wheel racing must be precise, there are many kinds of adaptations that can be made to road cars to accommodate drivers with limited mobility.

The Ontario Ministry of Transportation has no definitive numbers on drivers in Ontario who are paraplegic or quadriplegic, but it does have a “hand control” code. In 2012, there were 2,896 Ontarians with that condition designated on their driver’s licence.

In general terms, anyone who is paraplegic but has good upper body strength should be able to drive using a system like the one in Johnson’s road car, while those who damage the spinal cord higher on the back and have reduced strength or little arm, wrist and finger movement usually require more sophisticated adaptations.

Drivers with less mobility can use “zero-effort” steering, where the wheel only needs to move a few centimetres to negotiate turns. Others may need a spinner knob or a three-posted, triangular hand holder attached to the steering wheel to manoeuvre the car. Some use a joystick-type controller much like those on a power wheel chair.

And while hand controls aren’t hugely expensive, costs spiral out of control when vehicles need to be adapted to accommodate motorized wheelchairs.

“If you are in a power chair, you can be looking at anywhere between $30,000 to $50,000 to adapt the vehicle plus the cost of the vehicle itself, so it can easily reach $90,000,” said Guy Coulombe, manager of client services for the Canadian Paraplegic Association (Alberta) in its Edmonton office.

“And depending on how a person acquires a disability, there is hardly any government funding to adapt a vehicle, unless you are injured on the job. Otherwise, you are usually on your own.”

Coulombe, a quadriplegic, does not have enough strength to drive using hand controls. But, there’s hope for him, too.

Former IndyCar driver-turned-team-owner Sam Schmidt completed a ceremonial lap of the Indianapolis Motors Speedway in May driving a 2014 Corvette C7 equipped with an experimental control system that responds to signals from sensors attached to the driver’s head. Schmidt was paralyzed from the neck down 14 years ago in a preseason testing accident at Orlando’s Walt Disney World Speedway.

Tim Johnson, too, may end up helping others with less mobility get behind the wheel. Because the braking system in his race car slows his son down, Johnson has been working to find a replacement for the telescopic steering column brake system.

A group of Saginaw Valley State University students in Michigan has been looking at different ways to improve braking, – valves, servo motors, air cylinders, etc. – although none have done so yet.

“We would really like to find a company with that type of engineering knowledge that can work with us to develop something like a fly-by-wire system,” said Tim Johnson.

“Maybe one of the automotive companies could do this for the future because it seem like it would be a very good application to help improve the quality of the driving experience for people who have limited capability or even elderly who don’t have the physical strength.”