Detroit Grand Prix player/coach: Racer Simpson's star pupil is Michigan paraplegic Johnson
South African race driver Stephen Simpson comes to the Detroit Grand Prix this weekend with a couple of important Michigan connections. He will co-pilot the blazingly fast, No. 84 Cadillac DPi prototype for JDC Miller Motorsports in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Challenge race.
And when he’s not trying to score points for Detroit’s most famous luxury brand, Simpson is coaching and co-driving in the Michelin Pilot Challenge with another notable local: Lansing’s Michael Johnson, the only paraplegic driver in IMSA pro sports car racing.
Johnson put their Audi RS3 on the Pilot Challenge TCR class pole at Daytona this year, becoming the first paraplegic to accomplish that feat. The accomplishment is the latest highlight in the extraordinary career for the 26-year old who was paralyzed from his chest down in a freakish motorbike racing accident when he was 12.
It’s a journey, says Johnson, that would not have been possible without the inspiration and coaching of Simpson.
“I wouldn’t be here without him,” says Johnson, who was born in Mt. Morris but now calls Lansing home. “He’s helped me tremendously throughout my career. He understands my body and where I’m coming from. He is a phenomenal person.”
The feeling is mutual.
“He’s a great role model and an ambassador (for the sport),” says Simpson, who started coaching Michael in 2011. “When we met we just clicked. He’s very quick behind the wheel and he’s still progressing. His goal is to win the Daytona 24-Hour” (America’s premier sports car race).
Unusually, the pair will not be racing together on Detroit this weekend. The sprawling IMSA race calendar usually pairs the Pilot Challenge and WeatherTech races together, but only the latter will be in Detroit. Johnson will be on his way to Watkins Glen for testing – prepping the Audi to race with Simpson the weekend of June 27. Simpson will also be piloting the Cadillac in Watkins Glen.
The co-drivers won their first race together last year at Lime Rock, which was also the first pro win for Johnson. Every accomplishment by the 26-year old is news as he is the rare race driver who competes without the use of his legs in sport that puts enormous G-loads on the human body.
Johnson has succeeded with relentless determination, raw talent ... and a little help from his racing peers.
His life changed forever in 2005 when he was momentarily blinded by debris on his visor in a dirt-bike race.
“I’m not sure what happened,” says Johnson. “I ran out of (visor) tear-offs, hit a rut or another biker in front of me and ... went through the wood fence. I hit my chest with the handle bars so hard it broke my back.”
He would never regain feeling below his rib cage. Undeterred, he focused on racing as he underwent rehabilitation in 2006.
He and his father traveled to Wisconsin in 2006 to buy a go-kart with hand controls that had been used by racing amputee Alex Zanardi – himself a victim of a horrific IndyCar racing accident that resulted in the loss of his legs.
“Zanardi pioneered a bunch of devices,” says Johnson. “He’s an inspiration that helps me strive to be like him – and perform to the best of my ability.”
Johnson began the long climb up pro racing’s farm league ladder, moving from go-karts to Formula 2000 cars to Pro Mazda. It was there that his life intersected with Stephen Simpson.
Simpson, who is nearly a decade older than Johnson at 35, had recently faced a turning point in his own racing career.
As a 16-year old racing in South Africa, Simpson served notice of his talent, as the youngest driver to win South Africa’s Formula Ford Championship. His skills attracted attention abroad and he graduated to the brutally competitive Formula Renault (Europe) and Indy Lights (U.S.) junior series with dreams of one day racing in Formula One and IndyCar.
Those hopes were dashed by the Great Recession of 2008 and Simpson found himself without a drive. Passionate about his craft, he turned to coaching to make a living.
He and Johnson crossed paths in Pro Mazda in 2011. A powerful bond was formed.
By 2016 they were also sharing a car together in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge (now Pilot Challenge) series, and last year they won their first race – at Lime Rock – in a thrilling pass last-lap pass by Simpson.
In addition to working well together, the pair have similar driving styles, which helps in quick pit stop driver exchanges.
Without use of his legs, Johnson drives with a special steering wheel equipped with thumb-operated accelerator buttons on the front and finger-operated brake buttons on the back. He also must negotiate gear changes with paddle shifters.
Though packed into the Audi RS3 with a six-point seatbelt harness and bucket seat, Johnson has only his upper body to brace against the substantial, 2-plus G-load side forces the race car generates in turns.
Credit his intense off-track training regimen with Lansing exercise guru Josh Gibbs.
When he swaps with Simpson at pit stops, Johnson is helped out of the car by Gibbs. He also takes a seat insert with him to allow for the longer body of Simpson. The South African uses the same steering wheel as Johnson – but uses the Audi’s foot pedals for acceleration and braking.
While the younger Johnson chases his racing dreams, Simpson has continued to build his resume in other areas of the sport. In addition to Michael, Simpson coaches Andretti Motorsports’ Indy Lights team of three drivers – as well as a Formula 4 team. And he was a spotter for JR Hildebrand at last weekend’s Indy 500 race.
His first year racing the Cadillac for JDC Miller is a work in progress. One of six Cadillacs in the IMSA field – Caddy has been the dominant car in IMSA prototype for years – Simpson’s team is striving to match the pace of competitors.
“We’re learning the car every race weekend,” says Simpson. “Our goal is to add to Cadillac’s win tally in the WeatherTech Sportscar Championship.”
Who knows, someday soon, one of his Cadillac co-drivers might be Michael Johnson.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.