Small talk with Racing Legend A J Foyt and St. Pete Pole Winner Takuma Sato, and two solid runs in the opening rounds of the 2014 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series.... Florida was worth the trip for Michael Johnson
MOUNT MORRIS, MICH. -- After a final test on Monday and Tuesday with his JDC MotorSports teammates Kyle Connery, Ryan Booth and Vicky Piria, Michael Johnson arrived at St. Petersburg, Fla., midweek for the season-opening rounds of the 2014 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.
The weekend started out extremely well as Michael posted the fourth fastest time early in the Friday morning practice out of the 20 cars entered in the Allied Building products Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
After that it was off to meetings throughout the day for program partners and appearances -- including a get together with Racing Legend AJ Foyt and his Verizon IndyCar Series driver Takuma Sato who ended up winning the pole position for Sunday's IndyCar race -- before getting ready again for the second practice Friday afternoon.
"Friday was a perfect day," said Johnson."We were fast right away and the JDC MotorSports team gave me a car which felt great. We just made a few adjustments for the afternoon season and I had a lot of appearances and meetings in between the two practices which kept me busy so the day went by really quick.
"It was great meeting AJ and Takuma at A.J. Foyt Enterprises in the IndyCar paddock and I have to thank Madeline, the Executive Director from Wheelchairs 4 Kids, who actually set this up. I was surprised how much media and people were there to cover that and I had a great chat with both." (Related IndyCar News article by Dave Lewandowski)
Wheelchairs 4 Kids was one of the organizations Michael supported with his program during the race weekend, a partnership which started a year ago when he was still running in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series.
"Madeline runs a great organization. Wheelchairs 4 Kids is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization and they are actually based in Tarpon Springs, Fla., very close north of St. Petersburg. Their mission is to improve the lives of children with physical disabilities by providing wheelchairs, home and vehicle modifications as well as other adaptive devices. So obviously it's a great honor for me to support them and try to help increase awareness for them with my program."
After a busy Friday the focus shifted again to racing for Saturday's qualifing and first race that afternoon.
"In all honesty I was a little bit disappointed with only qualifing 11th on Saturday morning," said Johnson. "The car still was fast and felt great I just got stuck in traffic but I knew that the speed was still there. Yes we qualified 11th but it all was so close, 0.2 sec quicker and I would have been 5th."
Saturday also turned out to be the total opposite from Friday in a different aspects, including a fast-moving storm which put the entire event on hold and resulted in a mandatory evacuation of the paddock and grandstands. So the start of the first race of the season was delayed until early Saturday evening.
With the track still not being completely dry and all the rubber washed away due to the heavy rain in the afternoon, the series decided to start the race with a rolling start under yellow and behind the pace car for the first two laps to give all drivers the opportunity to adjust to the changed track conditions.
"I think the series made the right call to start the race under yellow and not with a standing start as planned," said Johnson. "The reality is a lot of drivers, me included, never made a standing start under race conditions so with only one dry line early on it was the right thing to do."
After the race finally got under way Michael early on was gaining some positions and was running eighth when the still wet conditions off-line caught him out under braking in Turn One and caused him to spin.
"I just hit one of the white airport runway lines under braking in Turn One and just could not catch it in time. Unfortunately, not only was I facing the wrong direction I also stalled the engine so I lost a lot of positions and time before I got it going again."
Because of the spin Michael ended up in 15th place for race one but would start again in the 11th spot for Sunday's second round of the season-opening weekend in St. Pete. Sunday also would see Michael performing his first standing start under race conditions which obviously presents a additional challenge driving the car with hand controls only.
(An in-car video for Michael in Sunday's race including his standing start using hand controls only can be found here)
Sundays race not only proved that doing a standing start with hand controls only will not be a problem for Michael, it also saw him capturing his first top-10 finish of the season with a great pass on the last lap.
"Sunday's race was great, from all aspects. The start was great. I had to lift a little in Turn One of the opening lap and lost a position or two but I was able to gain them back. After I got into a rhythm I noticed that I was catching the cars ahead of me and was sure I could pass them, but the only mishap we had was that towards the end I had some smaller issues with the shifter so I never really got a run on them. So I just waited until the last lap to make my move and it worked out.
"I really have to thank my team, JDC MotorSports, especially John and Scott Church and my engineer Rick Cameron. We are running a new hand-control system and setup on the car with the move into the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, and outside the little hiccup in race two everything worked flawlessly all weekend."
Now it will be a three-week break until the next rounds of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, again with a double-header race event in support of the Verizon IndyCar Series at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., on April 26-27.
About Michael Johnson: Twenty-one year old paralyzed racer Michael Johnson is the first and only paralyzed licensed IndyCar driver. Michael was on his way to becoming a professional motorcycle racer, having won races and championships at regional and national level, when, on August 13, 2005 he was involved in an on-track racing accident which left him paralyzed from the mid-chest down. After several years of recovery he has started racing and winning again and now has set his goal to become the first paralyzed driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500. Michael drives his specially modified race car with hand controls and he became the first paralyzed racer to win in an open-wheel formula car during Round Two of the Skip Barber Summer Series at Watkins Glen International Raceway in 2011. He went on to claim two further victories at Road America, and finished the 2011 season with three wins, one pole position, four third place podiums and several top-five finishes. In 2012 Michael moved up to the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda with championship winning team JDC MotorSports. This is Step One of the “Mazda Road to Indy” program. In his first year as a professional licensed IndyCar driver Michael had several top-10 finishing positions in qualifying and races on his way to 15th position overall in the series. Michael is once again competing with JDC MotorSports in the 2014 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.
Follow Michael on Facebook michaeljohnsonracing, Twitter @racer54iscool and Instagram @johnsonracing54 or visitwww.MichaelJohnsonRacing.com.