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This Is How a Race Car for Paralyzed Drivers Works

Michael Johnson talks us through the setup for his BMW 228i M Sport.

If you’ve ever raced a car, legally or otherwise, you’re acutely aware how all your appendages must work in tandem to properly control the vehicle. In order to correctly determine the plethora of adjustments required to maintain speed and the right line, your body doubles as a comprehensive computer, drawing feedback from every sensation. Now, imagine losing control of your legs and most of that invaluable information. Would you still race? For Michael Johnson, a paralyzed driver in the International Motor Sport Association, the answer is “absolutely.”

Johnson’s no stranger to speed. The 23-year-old has been flying around tracks since he was three. Bikes were an early forte, and he excelled at flat-track racing. He had 14 national titles under his belt by the age of twelve, when he ran wide during a bike race and slammed into a metal post, breaking his back and paralyzing him from the chest down. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Johnson refuses to ease off the throttle. After racing in the Pro Mazda series—the only paralyzed driver ever to be sanctioned by IndyCar—the Michigan native joined IMSA’s Continental Sportscar Challenge this year, competing in the ST class in a BMW 228i M Sport. We talked to Johnson, who finished 22nd this past weekend at Lime Rock Park, about his new car setup, the accompanying demanding physical rigors, and how he overcomes any deficits.

The Drive: Let’s talk about your wheels. You’re using some complex hand controls.

Johnson: Everything is on the steering wheel. There’s a ring plate on the front of the wheel that I press in with both thumbs and hold to accelerate. There’s another ring on the backside of the wheel that I pull on to brake. These controls actually move the pedals; there’s no electrical systems that could fail or we could have issues with. That also goes to the point that no one can say there’s an advantage to using these controls. Anyone can hop in and use them to see that.

Michael Johnson's BMW 228i M Sport exiting a corner during an IMSA Continental Sportscar Challenge race.

What’s the hardest part about using hand controls to race?

Finding a good set of controls that works! [Laughs] We searched for months to get this rig just right. It’s a Guidosimplex system that we’d heard about. They make controls specifically for paralyzed racers and I flew to Madrid to test this exact system in a street car. Once I realized it would work, Guidosimplex came over to Minnesota, where my JDC/Miller Motorsports team is based, and customized the rig specifically for this BMW and for my hands. This is a one-of-one set up just for me. Now, it’s perfect.

Why was customizing it you so crucial?

The ring lengths have to be the right size so I can apply the right pressure. Too big or small and I can’t be as effective. It’s really difficult, in terms of hand strength, to move those rings for my stint of each race. When you take your foot off a pedal, the spring has to rebound quickly, so I need my ring to pop back equally fast. That means holding down a stiffer spring, which takes a toll after an hour.

The interior of Johnson's BMW.

Do you worry about your feet hitting the pedals accidentally?

When I’m driving, we cover the pedals with a plate so that can’t happen. My co-driver, Stephen Simpson, pops the plate out so he can use the pedals.

Could Stephen use your hand controls?

He could. At this point, we leave them in there. I may get my own steering wheel in the future and swap them at the driver change, but for now they stay in the car at all times.

Does it take you longer to get in or out of the car?

Because I have very good upper body strength, I can get out of the car as fast as anyone else. There’s no option for me to be slow there. I start the race because getting in takes some effort. I need to get my body properly positioned. We use an insert to raise me up and make sure my legs are in the perfect spot. Everyone else has lower abs, core support and their legs to keep them upright and stable. I don’t have that so it’s harder for me to stay stable. My arms help a bit, but I need to lock down my lower body movement so that it’s as stiff as possible. That’s how I get secure.

Johnson showing a camera crew the interior of his JDC/Miller Motorsport BMW.

What does your physical regiment entail to stay in shape for racing?

I work out with a full time trainer for three to four hours every day. My trainer, Josh Gibbs, and I have been working together for seven years, so he really knows my body well. I do a lot of stretching and a lot of cardio. Because it’s been so hot, we’re outside a ton to get acclimated to the conditions. I’ll do cycling, or club workouts in high heat, and some weight training. There’s a lot of swimming, too. It’s more cardio than weights because I never want my upper body to overpower my lower body. I try to stay balanced so my body can withstand any incidents that may happen on track.

Any big crashes since you started?

I had a huge accident in St. Petersburg last April that broke my pelvis and left femur and I didn’t know until I got to the hospital. Since then, I’ve been working hard to make my body stronger in case that happens again.

The Guidosimplex setup on the wheel. The accelerator ring is mounted on the front; the brake ring on the rear.

Do you have any sensation or movement in your lower body?

Some. I can’t feel anything through my butt, for example, but I get a bunch of sensation through my hands. I can feel a curb, though I’m a little late to that feeling. That’s the good part about having a teammate. If I’m unsure of what I’m feeling from the car, Stephen can hop in and confirm what the car is doing.

You’ve had big crashes, with serious results. Any trepidations about future incidents?

If I was to worry, I don’t belong out there. I don’t think about it at all. I grew up with my dad telling me to have fun and not worry. If I start freaking out, we pack up and go home.

Johnson demonstrating how he applies pressure to the accelerator ring.
Johnson all strapped in and ready to go.
Johnson and JDC/Miller Motorsport teammate Stephen Simpson have finished all the IMSA races they've started this season and are currently in 16th place in the series.
The BMW 228i M Sport competes in the ST (Street Touring) class.