Back in the Groove
Ken Johnson’s triumphant return from adversity
By Brian Lohnes
Photos by Brian Wood

 

Ken Johnson has been to a lot of drag races. He has been working with George and Jackie Bryce for nearly twenty years on all aspects of their highly successful racing program. Johnson has been a major cog in the success machine at both Star Racing and G Squared Motor sports.

Ken Johnson, right, has been associated with George Bryce, left, for many years. Here the two are discussing race strategy with G Squared Motorsports rider Chip Ellis. 

 

The reasons for his success are many, but the major bullets are a highly developed work ethic, a genuine will to win, and the ability to push himself and his machinery harder than anyone else on the NHRA tour. Over the last five months, all of those traits have been strained to the breaking point. Everything Ken Johnson knew as being “normal” changed dramatically. His thirst for success and his drive to get back to the track have carried him places where others would never get.

It was June 4th, 2005. Like he had at so many races before, Johnson was riding his ATV around the pits at U.S. 19 Dragway in Albany, GA when things went horribly wrong. “I have been riding four wheelers and ATVs my whole life and have never been injured,” Johnson said. “It was really a freak thing. The ATV we were riding in got up on its side and was trying to turn over. I was able to put my leg out to hold it up, which was working until my leg slipped on the grass and the vehicle turned over.”

As the vehicle fell on its side Johnson’s body remained in the seat. His leg was crushed under the side of the small truck-like ATV as it came down. “I knew I was hurt and at first I thought, ‘Oh man, I’m going to be in a cast for the rest of the season,’ when my buddies turned the thing over all of us realized that I was hurt bad,” Johnson remembered.

Ken Johnson credits his wife Kassi and George and Jackie Bryce among those most responsible for helping him through his long, arduous ordeal. He made his emotional return to racing at the recent U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. 

 

911 was dialed as Johnson lay on the ground, his femoral artery hemorrhaging blood at an alarming rate. A tourniquet was applied to the area to try and stem the flow, but Johnson was beginning to feel the effects of blood loss. “By the time the ambulance was on the way to the hospital I had lost six units of blood. I was awake the entire time, so I remember pretty much everything. My wife Kassi rode with me to the hospital and I can still remember the EMT yelling that she could not find a pulse on me when we were riding along,” Johnson said.

By the time he arrived at the hospital, Johnson’s harrowing and painful nightmare was far from over. “When I got to the hospital, they could not give me any medication for the pain until they did the X-Rays. You know, it’s kind of funny. I was wearing my sun glasses the entire time, until I got to the hospital. They took them off for me when we got there. It’s kind of strange, the things you remember after going through something like that,” said Johnson.


a d v e r t i s e m e n t

Click to visit our sponsor's website


Soon after arriving at the hospital, Johnson’s biggest worry was the pain. Unfortunately, his problems would get exponentially larger and his mettle would be tested yet again in the coming weeks. Doctors made a valiant effort and explored every avenue available to them that would allow them to reconstruct Johnson’s leg and thus let him lead a normal life. Despite their best efforts, however, a very difficult decision loomed for Johnson and his wife.

Back in familiar territory – Johnson helps new G Squared Motorsports team member Matt Smith line up at Indy.

 

“It was a very hard decision to make the call to amputate. My wife and I did a lot of crying and we really had to look hard at both sides of the situation. The doctors said that it could take years to get my leg back to being functional. I would have been in and out of the hospital and I can’t stand those places. I just really wanted to get back to work and get my life back together. We finally decided that the best thing would be to amputate. So on June 15th, they amputated my left leg, just above the knee,” Johnson remembered.

Many people have had to face this exact decision in their lives, but those who do not possess the will to survive that Ken Johnson does often suffer through a dark and isolated period of arduous recovery. The process of learning how to walk again has broken the will of many men and women over the course of time, but Johnson would not fall victim to dark thoughts.

“I am lucky because I have been around people in the industry of prosthetics and people like [former Pro Stock Motorcycle competitor] Reggie Showers during my career. Seeing what Reggie accomplished gave me a ton of confidence that I could do this and get my life back to where I wanted it. Prosthetic Design Inc. was a major sponsor during our time with Reggie, and I got close to Tracey Slemker, who works for the company. Tracey helped my wife and I during the amputation decision and the early recovery process,” Johnson said.

Johnson worked 70 hours in one week preparing two bikes for the U.S. Nationals. He drove the team’s 18-wheeler most of the way to the track as well. “Honestly, I have not found anything that I could do before the accident that I can’t do now,” he said.

 

In a great display of friendship, Slemker invited Johnson and his wife to move up to Ohio so they could devote all of their time to his recovery and to the process of becoming mobile once a prosthetic was fitted. Johnson claims that he’s one of those people who just has to be doing something at all times; he cannot sit still. In many ways, that’s the best way to be if you’re someone who needs to learn how to walk again. There are some pitfalls, though.

“I pushed it too hard in the early recovery. I was walking too much up at PDI and I messed up the incision on my leg,” Johnson said. “It started to get a little mangled up and the doctors said that I had to be off it for a while, so I followed their orders and let it heal up. It was a tough lesson to learn, but it was the only reason I would slow down at PDI. There were several moments that I thought, ‘Can I really so this?’ but I just wanted to get back to work so bad that I pushed myself to succeed.”

No matter how upbeat and how driven someone is, human nature dictates that a certain amount of doubt and fear will creep into the subconscious of any person who experiences an ordeal such as this. Johnson and his wife Kassi had to deal with a few of those moments. “There were a few times when we asked ourselves why this happened to us. My wife and I both cried, but we realized that crying does not help anything,” Johnson said. “We held out heads up and went out there to get better. Knowing George and Jackie made such a difference. They are such great people and I knew that my place was going to be there when I got good enough to work. I think that maybe the Lord chose me to inspire people in this situation, I have met a lot of amputees at the races since the accident and they all think it is great that I am out there doing what I do.”

As important as the human spirit is, the technology of prosthetic limbs has come along harder and faster than a top fuel dragster. Johnson currently has two legs, one is a “carbureted” leg designed and developed by PDI, and the other is his “fuel injected” leg that was donated by the Hegwood family of Ohio.

Aside from being a bit slower on his feet, Johnson has not met a challenge he couldn’t defeat yet. “It alters the way I work a little. I need to become a little more of a supervisor than I was in the past. I may not be able to work as fast as I used to, but I still know what I know, and that is a lot of the equation.”

 

“The PDI leg was the leg I learned how to walk again on and it is the one that Tracey’s company built for me. It is a hydraulic unit that senses when I put pressure on the toe and it releases so I can walk with normal strides,” Johnson explained. “When the cylinder releases, the leg swings forward and I can take a step.”

Since that leg is a mechanical unit, Johnson had to learn to walk “correctly,” meaning that his posture needed to be correct and he had to really practice the correct way to stride and how to tailor his walking style to the mechanical abilities of the leg. Ken’s “fuel injected” leg is an amazing piece of technology which came along because of the kindness of others.


a d v e r t i s e m e n t

Click to visit our sponsor's website


“I went back to PDI in Ohio to see Stacey and get my C-Leg fitted after Indy. The C-Leg is manufactured in Austria and I believe it costs about $45,000. It really is the Rolls Royce of legs and the only reason I have this is through the help of a family that saw my story. Jesse and Chuck Hegwood of Ohio were the folks who donated the leg to me. Their son Nick was a motorcycle racer and an amputee. He was killed in a racing accident and the family wanted to donate the leg to someone involved in motor sports and motorcycles.”

Johnson was constantly on the go in Indy. Here he fabricates a new set of headers for one of the team’s Buell racing bikes.

 

The Hegwood’s generous donation now serves as Ken’s primary prosthetic. It is amazing to think about, but Johnson can actually plug a lap top into this prosthetic and “tune” it like a racer would tune his EFI. “I can tune this leg up so it does exactly what I want it to do. It adjusts the hydraulic pressure over fifty times per second when I am walking to keep things moving along smoothly. This leg was really made for walking and it is just awesome. I plug it in every night and get it ready for the next day,” Johnson said.

Johnson travels with both legs, in the event one of them has a problem he can switch to his backup. These are not decisions that he ever thought he was going to have to make, but he has adapted to the situation with aplomb.

“This is my way of life now. I have to make the best of it and go out there and help G Squared Racing win a championship. I really hope I am able to inspire people and give people a lot of hope as I continue to do well. I would never be at this level without my wife and all of the great people who have helped me along this road. My wife Kassi never left the hospital the entire time I was in there,” Johnson said.

The G Squared pit area at Indianapolis Raceway Park was a busy place during the U.S. Nationals, with new rider Matt Smith’s Buell joining that of Chip Ellis. Ken Johnson was more then up to the task of keeping both bikes tuned and ready to race throughout the long weekend. 

 

Aside from being a bit slower on his feet, Johnson has not met a challenge he couldn’t defeat yet. “It alters the way I work a little. I need to become a little more of a supervisor than I was in the past, but you have to slow down sometime. I may not be able to work as fast as I used to, but I still know what I know, and that is a lot of the equation. I just need to ask for help with stuff, where in the past I was doing it all myself,” Johnson said. “I have done some cool stuff, though. I drove the 18-wheeler half-way to our last race, which is something that I like to do and it is good that I still can do that. We went out riding Jet Skis last weekend and I have an old-school, stand-up-style Jet Ski, which I can still ride better with one leg than Chip Ellis can with two. Honestly, I have not found anything that I could do before the accident that I can’t do now.”

Ken’s official return to the track was at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals over Labor Day weekend. The previous week he put in 70 hours preparing two bikes for the most prestigious drag race in the world. “I said I was going to ease back into it, but I guess that didn’t happen. I’m pretty busy for a one-legged man,” Johnson joked. “We all worked so hard to get those bikes done and tested and out to Indy. We did alright that weekend, all things considered. I was just really excited to get back to the track and get back into the swing of things.”

Thanks to the compassion and generosity of many people, including Tracey Slemker of Prosthetic Design Inc. and Jesse and Chuck Hegwood, Ken Johnson is back on his feet and enjoying life again. He hopes that his ability to look adversity straight in the eye and overcome it will serve as an inspiration to others who face seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their lives. 

 

Johnson was asked to point out the three biggest factors in his successful return. He said, “First off I would have to say the support of my wife. She was there every minute and she never let me get down on myself. Without her, I don’t know if I could do it on my own. Secondly, I would have to say Tracey Slemker and Lucy Bush. Tracey is just a miracle worker at PDI and Lucy let us live at her house for two weeks while I was going through my fittings at PDI. The third thing would be George and Jackie Bryce and everyone from the racing world,” Johnson said. “I got so many cards and letters from racers and fans that it carried me through the dark times. Everyone was telling me I could do it, and they all wanted me to do it. That just made my will to succeed so strong. Even the doctors said that they were not used to someone who was so eager to get back to work. I was doing things in a couple of weeks that it takes some people six or seven months to get the hang of.”

Ken Johnson’s story of triumph is one that should provide inspiration to many, not just those in the racing world. It speaks to the power of the human spirit and the ability to overcome obstacles in life. Johnson’s very pragmatic approach to both his injury and his recovery are clear signs that he is a life-long drag racer. He recognized the issue, sought the most sensible solution, and threw all of his time, effort, and heart into making it a reality. Ken Johnson is a true champion in the heart of anyone who has ever conquered adversity.   

Return to Contents
 

Return to Contents

 

Return to Contents 


© Competitionplus 2005