MOUNT MORRIS, MI. - It was a mixed outcome for paralyzed racer Michael Johnson at round two of the 2013 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series in St. Petersburg, Florida.
The speed was there but unfortunately not the luck to capitalize on it and get the results Johnson was hoping for during the double-header races, as part of the season start of the IZOD IndyCar Series' Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Johnson started out strong during the Friday practice runs and ended up posting the ninth quickest time out of 31 entries, only 0.558 sec. off the fastest time. So the hopes were high for Saturday morning's qualifying to break again into the top 10 and secure a good start position for Race One, which would take place Saturday afternoon on the 1.8 mile street course in St. Petersburg.
Qualifying took place early Saturday morning with the track still being damp after heavy rains during the night. Johnson went out and constantly improved his times as the track dried, when a red flag interrupted the session about halfway through the 30-minute qualifying.
After a short five minute break for cleanup, it was go time with a finally fully dried racetrack. Immediately after leaving the pits, Johnson noticed that something was wrong with the car under throttle. He tried to make it back to the pits when the car died completely leaving him stranded out on the track.
"Timing could not have been worse; we had such a good car and I was confident that we at least could end up in the top 12 or better during qualifying," said Johnson.
The car was brought back to the paddock after qualifying ended, but not only did Johnson lose the opportunity to improve his times, based on the rules he also lost his fastest lap from the first outing for causing a red flag.
"When it rains it pours," Johnson added. "I ended up 27th in qualifying basically at the end of the entire field for Race One. We quickly found the reason why the car died; it was just a lose cable. It's a shame. Passing on a street course like St. Pete is difficult anyway, so starting all the way in the back for sure would not help for the race."
The strategy for Race One therefore was very simple - just try to have a clean race, make up as many positions as possible and stay out of trouble to benefit from other's mistakes on the tricky street circuit. And Johnson did exactly that, having a stellar run and moving up from his 27th starting position all the way to 14th place.
"I drove as hard as I could and just was focusing to not make any mistakes," said Johnson. "At the end I was closing in on a group of four cars ahead of me, so from the speed a top ten finish for sure was in reach. My team JDC MotorSports once again gave me a perfect car. I really felt comfortable pushing it and for sure it did not hurt that I like the track a lot. The only downside about the race was with running in traffic most of the race. I could not improve my lap times from qualifying so for Race Two on Sunday I would have to start again from the back."
Race Two on Sunday turned out to be a different affair. Johnson started one position better in 26th place but only could gain five positions and finished a disappointing 21st.
"I was stuck behind a slower car after the start and it simply took me too long to pass him," he explained. "When I finally could get by him and was making up ground another full course yellow came out, which obviously helped me catching up but after the restart I simply could not get a rhythm going so I only gained four more positions and ended up in 21st place. No question, I am disappointed. We proved in practice that we can run in the top ten and had a strong run in Race One, but something just did not click in Race Two. At least we had another two clean races like in Sebring without any incidents or damages and we collected some more points."
Now it’s one month off for Johnson and his team, until testing starts up early May with a two-day test at Mid-Ohio and a one day test at Lucas Oil Raceway Park, the only oval on the schedule leading up to the season highlight race on May 25th at Lucas Oil Raceway Park - the Night Before the 500. About Michael Johnson Twenty-year-old paralyzed racer Michael Johnson, who currently is the first and only paralyzed licensed INDYCAR driver, was on his way to become a professional motorcycle racer, having already won races and championships on a 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 Johnson has started racing and winning again and now has set his goal to become the first paralyzed driver to run the Indianapolis 500. Johnson drives his specially modified race car with hand controls only and became the first paralyzed racer to win in an open-wheel formula car race during round two of the Skip Barber Summer Series at Watkins Glen International Raceway in 2011. Outside of his first time win at Watkins Glen, Johnson additionally scored two wins at Road America, one pole position, four third place podiums and several top-five finishes in the 2011 season.
In 2012 Johnson moved up to the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, step one of the “Mazda Road to Indy” program, with championship-winning team JDC MotorSports. In his first year as a professional licensed INDYCAR driver, Johnson had several top-ten finishing positions in qualifying and races and finished 15th in overall championship points standing out of the 36 drivers participating.
Follow Johnson on Facebook @michaeljohnsonracing, Twitter @racer54iscool and Instagram @johnsonracing54. For more information, please visit: www.MichaelJohnsonRacing.com.