Micanopy girl killed in crash ‘lived her dream,’ family members say
Published: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 2:46 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 2:46 p.m.
MICANOPY — A few months ago, Richard Johnson bought a 1997 Nissan Sentra for his 15-year-old daughter, Niokoa Johnson, so she could pursue her dream of racing cars.
The Micanopy Middle School ninth-grader was excited and spent her time gutting the car. Then she and her father had it fitted with the equipment needed for a racing car.
On Saturday at Bubba Raceway Park north of Ocala, Niokoa and her father arrived early, and she practiced driving her car in the pits.
"It was her first time actually driving the car," Richard Johnson said at his Micanopy home on Tuesday.
Then it was time for her to drive on the track. Her first lap was uneventful. On her second lap, Niokoa appeared to lose control of the car and it crashed into a concrete wall.
The girl was first transported to Ocala Regional Medical Center and then airlifted to UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville. She died Sunday at Shands.
"She was happiest when she was pursuing her dream," said Sandy Messer, one of Niokoa's aunts.
Maj. Tommy Bibb, of the Marion County Sheriff's Office, said on Tuesday that Florida Highway Patrol officials will assist in an investigation of the crash. MCSO detectives and FHP troopers will inspect the car at the Sheriff's Office sometime on Wednesday.
Bibb said they are awaiting results from the Medical Examiner's Office in Gainesville to determine the cause of death. He called the incident "an accidental tragic death."
Johnson said Niokoa was born at North Florida Regional Medical Center in Gainesville and attended the charter elementary school in Micanopy and then the middle school.
Her grandmother Dorothy Johnson and aunt Nancy Fell said Niokoa loved animals and the outdoors. Family members said she was shy and didn't let too many people get close to her.
Once she did, however, "you were a friend for life," her grandmother said.
Niokoa liked riding dirt bikes and target shooting and had a boxer named Ally, age 5. Family members said the teen was outspoken and strong-willed. She loved life, they said, and was a dreamer.
Niokoa wore mostly jeans and T-shirts. Lately though, her grandmother said with a smile, the girl was "slowly but surely" warming up to the idea of wearing dresses.
The family said Niokoa was a "daddy's girl" and was fearless and dreamed of becoming a race car driver. Wherever Richard Johnson went, they said, Niokoa was by his side.
"Everything he did, he did for his kids," Fell said. "He lived and breathed for his children."
Niokoa was the youngest child, with two sisters and a brother. She watched one of her sisters race go-carts and cars and wanted to follow in her footsteps.
Richard Johnson said he would take Niokoa to the races and mud bogging.
"She's been around it all her life," her father said. "It was something she dreamed about."
When Niokoa's car was ready, she wanted to model it after her sister's car. The orange color, the No. 17, were just some of the things Niokoa had on her car that were similar to her sister's.
"She didn't have a favorite driver," her father said. "She wanted to be her own favorite driver."
Family members said Niokoa died doing what she loved doing most and they accept her death. They said that Niokoa's death, though tragic, could have occurred while she was riding her dirt bike or even crossing the road.
"It was just a freak accident," her father said. "I still believe the sport is safe. She had all the safety guards. She lived her dream."
"So many people never got a chance to pursue their dreams, but she did," Fell said.
"I feel like I let her live," said her father.
Family members said that, since Niokoa's death, the support they have received from people as far away as Canada has been "overwhelming." They said they want to thank everyone, especially the racing community, for their thoughts, prayers and donations.
Contact Austin L. Miller at 867-4118 or firstname.lastname@example.org.