The Difference a Year Can Make!
Posted on March 16, 2016 10:20 AM by Michai Stephens
Returning home from St. Petersburg, Fla., marked another major stepping stone in my journey. The 2016 chapter has officially begun with the conclusion of the first round of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda. With 14 rounds still remaining, I believe we are all in for a special treat!
How cool is this new Sparco race suit?
The first stop was Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., for the official Mazda Road to Indy Spring Training preseason test. It was a great opportunity for me and the RJB Motorsports team to gain some track time with most of the other full-season contenders. Arriving at Barber brought a very welcoming sight - for the first time I got to see the RJB hauler in all its glory; our new home away from home for this season.
After three full days of jam-packed media training and six on track sessions, the team and I really started to build on our foundation. Being a part of such a wonderful leap of faith has already taught me a great deal and will only continue to do so! It goes without saying how grateful I am to Fred Edwards and Ryan Barth for such a magical opportunity.
Sliding into the Tampa, Fla., area the following day brought an opportunity to have a chat with our next generation. Turner Bartels K8 Middle School welcomed our belief in perseverance, heartfelt living and a positive attitude to accomplish whatever dream or goal imaginable. We showcased the race car, gave a personal presentation and answered questions in front of over 300 students. Turner Bartels’ education is focused around #STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering and Math - which made for a great tie into understanding the building and operating of a racing car. With a final - Hip Hip Hooray which nearly tore down the building, we headed on to our final destination for the weekend.
On the streets (JAM Motorsport Photography)
Arriving in St. Pete raised the hairs on my arms and quickly shocked me back into reality. I was here, I was actually here!!! Time then seamlessly shifted into high gear as I fought to keep those thoughts from leaving me in just the blink of an eye. This also served as a pleasant reminder as to how fast this sacred world moves. The on track activities kicked off with a shortened evening practice on Thursday that brought the fading sun directly into my line of sight for Turn One. It was sensory overload and after reaching for my turn signal a few times I pinched myself back into reality and got on with the program :)
Courtesy of MS Photography.
The plethora of visual cues, echoing Mazda power screaming off the walls and howling Cooper tires only added to the harmonic melody of the song and dance. It was a very special privilege to finally be orchestrating it all! A smile please, more like a beaming grin of joy from ear to ear!
After practice two and qualifying, it was time to go racing. Having misjudged a few things in qualifying I was going to be starting the first of two races in 16th among a super competitive 26 car field. As the green flag flew, so did many aspirations of making it through the first corner without some sort of carnage. With cars scattered to my left and right I dove down to the inside and picked my way through the wreckage. After multiple laps behind the safety car and a few humorous jokes over the radio, we were going green the next time by.
It took only 100ft past the start/finish line to find myself tearing towards another cloud of smoke. I slowed to reframe from being caught up in the mangle once again, but unfortunately lost a few spots in the process. Having been under caution for most of the race, we had about six laps remaining to sort things out. By the end I had avoided two additional collisions and crossed the line in 11th place.
The Wild Boar car charging (JAM Motorsport Photography)
As we crawled through pit lane and back to the paddock, there was a clear knocking noise coming from the undercarriage. After radioing my suspicions to the team, I hopped out to recap the race. The knocking would soon be discovered as a broken frame rail, located underneath the engine. Having found the problem, the team sprung into action and hustled to get her all buttoned up for Race Two. The guys got within 10 minutes of completing the job but just simply ran out of time. It was fantastic to see the immense heart and dedication put forth to getting me back on track. My teammate Clint McMahan, however, was cleared and ready to race, so I made myself useful and sprinted off to the Turn One grandstands. From there I managed to provide Clint with some information throughout the race.
With lessons learned, objectives met and new goals set, RJB Motorsports and I are ready to take on the challenges Barber has to offer in the next two races in April. It was an honest TEAM effort from every single member of our crew and I can only imagine what the limits will be in the future. My sincerest of thanks go out to everyone at RJB Motorsports, Fred Edwards, Metalloid Corp., Wild Board Energy Drink, the Mazda Road to Indy, Cooper Tires, Andersen Promotions, the Team USA Scholarship, RACER Magazine, RaceCraft1, SAFEisFAST.com, iAdvance simulators, NXG, Skip Barber Racing School, the race fans in St. Petersburg, INDYCAR, Bell Helmets, Sparco, JAM Motorsports Photography and everyone who helped get me to this point. I will forever cherish and respect your incredible support!!
PS. WE MADE IT!!! :)