Posted on October 18, 2015 3:44 PM by Michai Stephens
Hmm, how to put my last few days into words. Thinking, thinking, oh, I got it! Inspiring, surreal, unbelievable, jaw dropping, heartwarming and a mind blowing experience of a LIFE TIME!
If two years ago I told you that I would one day find my way into the Mercedes AMG PETRONAS Formula 1 Team headquarters in Brackley England, you probably would have thought I was absolutely crazy, and to be honest I would have agreed! We need to remember where I have come from and just how far I’ve traveled. My experience at Mercedes F1 and then, a day later, circulating the Silverstone International circuit in our Cliff Dempsey prepared, Team USA Scholarship Ray chassis Formula Fords has done simply that, reminding me of the immensely privileged and sought-after life I have been so thankfully living the past two-and-a-half years.
When Jeremy confirmed with us that Mr. Meadows had agreed to give us a tour around the factory I couldn't believe it. I have come to idolize this team and its drivers over the passing years, thus making such an already awesome visit just that little bit better! What surprised me at first was the location of the factory. It sat just off a roundabout right in Brackley, and if there wasn't a discrete sign I might have missed it. My vision of this massive structure nestled in the rolling hills of England, protected by skyscraper-like fences wasn't the case. But from the moment the guard's gate lifted you could quickly tell why. Such things were unnecessary and a distraction from what really mattered - the performance and execution of driver, machine and team.
Multiple buildings stood on either side of the main road. Paint shops to simulator bays led us to the gem of them all - the workshop, housing the design team, team boss offices and factory team HQ. It all worked in a seemingly effortless flow. Having never been to an F1 race, or ever seeing a Formula 1 car in person, the sight of Lewis Hamilton’s 2014 championship-winning car nearly took my breath away. It was more then just a car to me. It represented a story for both Lewis and myself. The message this Silver Arrow reflected was a never-give-up attitude and an "anything is possible" way of thinking. Having had the time to spend a few moments in its presence obviously meant a lot to me and will NEVER be forgotten! After touring the facility and seeing/holding some extraordinary items, it was time to roll on home.
Thanks to Michelle Dempsey for driving us, I was able to once again catch up on some sleep before awakening at the door of her and Cliff’s home. The following morning it was off to Silverstone for Dakota, the team and myself. The International circuit would be our playground for two 25 minute sessions. We used this time to our best abilities by finalizing a few bits and continuing to develop our comfort within the car. Working out of the new F1 garages really added some spice to the experience and continued our F1-like lifestyle :) . I found myself getting the biggest joy from driving in and out of pit lane! But once on track, the eve and flow of the corners took hold of my focus.
I felt as if I was driving "through" the history books of our sport yet again. Adding a bit of child-like imagination, I was soon racing for a "World Championship" down the Hanger Straight and into Stowe Corner. Then turning onto the International Pit Straight and flicking it into Abbey reminded me of the Vettel and Alonso duel two years back and the sights of Mr. Lewis Hamilton putting
it down in the wet last year...With the short day coming to a close we had checked off all our "to do’s" for the afternoon, so returned to the transporter for another one of Michelle’s wonderful meals. Cliff and Jack continued on with some prep work and development of our Formula Fords, then joined us for dinner. Once again the cars had been flawless!
it down in the wet last year...With the short day coming to a close we had checked off all our "to do’s" for the afternoon, so returned to the transporter for another one of Michelle’s wonderful meals. Cliff and Jack continued on with some prep work and development of our Formula Fords, then joined us for dinner. Once again the cars had been flawless!
A much needed thanks to Mercedes AMG PETRONAS F1 for welcoming us with open arms and Jeremy Shaw, Leigh Diffey and Steve Matchett for the intro! None of this would have ever become possible without the help of the Skip Barber Racing School as they single handedly allowed for my introduction into the world of motorsports. To friends, family and great supporters, THANK YOU for hanging in there and continuing to join me on this journey.
To those who are chasing your dreams, stay after it! You never know what you might wake up too. Heck, the other day I touched the future!
Posted on October 12, 2015 3:29 PM by Michai Stephens
The past few months have been completely mesmerizing. Having narrowly missed out on the Skip Barber Racing/Mazda scholarship to race in USF2000 this year and not being able to secure a fulltime ride in 2015 meant it was time to hit the pavement. Thankfully, aside from some Cooper Tires USF2000 Winterfest races early in the year with Afterburner Autosport and a one-off F1600 ride with JAY Motorsports at VIR in June, I managed to maintain a foothold in the Mazda Road to Indy and the IMSA sports car series which ultimately all helped in my re-nomination for the 2015 Team USA Scholarship.
This was my chance to earn my way back into a racing car. I had grown as an individual outside of the car since last year, and no matter how badly I wanted to be in a car, I continued to remind myself of the leg work that needed to be done. After Mr. Jeremy Shaw confirmed my selection for Team USA, I checked one of the two remaining boxes off for 2015. Going racing again was one, and securing something for 2016 was two.
The Team USA Scholarship has granted and taught me many things, including the ability to experience life the way I always hoped to see it and getting to know myself in the process. Moving through the days, weeks and months with a sense of personal fulfillment has changed me. Sometimes it’s been tough to see an end in sight, but this year’s nomination has been a big help in keeping the future bright, both in my eyes and others. I simply cannot express my level of gratitude merely through black and white text. The only way to truly express my appreciation is to make the most of this opportunity!
The past month and a half has been busy busy! I continued my adventure after returning from Circuit of The Americas with the IMSA Tudor and Continental Tire SportsCar series, finding myself back in Indianapolis where I met up with Dakota Dickerson, Auston Harris and Kelly Jones from RaceCraft1 for a bit of prep work on the simulator. After three solid days where the focus was on on-track awareness, car setup and team building, I headed off again to Sebring, Fla. Thanks to past Skippy Instructors, new friends and current supporters, I participated in a singleday test with Team Pelfrey. The Sebring course paired with Mazda power and the USF2000 car was challenging but enjoyable. It was great to be back in a race car!
After rushing home for a brief 24 hour visit, just enough time to say hello to family and friends, my good friend from grade school, James Torres Gonsales, who has been a huge supporter of mine, continued his generosity by allowing me to borrow his car yet again - this time to travel back to Indianapolis. Luis Perocarpi from LAP Motorsports had invited me along to Petit Le Mans for the final weekend of the IMSA championships at Road Atlanta. I had a fantastic time, rekindling and making new and important relationships, while witnessing the LAP Mini JCW team score its best finish of the year with second in the Continental Tire finale. It was great for the team and cool to be a part of.
Come Saturday morning and with 11 hours of travel time ahead, it was a flat out push for home! Then the next four days seamlessly blew by just as had the past month, culminating in another single day test with Pabst Racing in its USF2000 car at the Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Ill. I was thrilled with the fact that something was finally going to be close to home, so hurried to invite what friends and family I could for a chance to witness first hand what many of them had only heard about or seen in photos. It was a picture perfect day with sunny skies, a cool breeze filling the air, the sounds of racing cars and great company. Strapping in I had made note of this and could hardly believe my eyes. Everything I absolutely love in life was laid on the horizon of my view
from within the cockpit.
My current passion is the art of driving and the challenge of becoming a professional racing driver. While the support of family and friends has helped encourage me along every step of the way, little do most people know what a true global effort it has been to help maintain and further my current path...My time in the car was great as I began experiencing my first proper feelings of downforce. I walked away this time with a large grin and warm heart!
A single day fell between then and leaving for England. "Where is the time going"? I asked myself. To good times, lasting memories and unforgettable experiences was my answer!
I took off for London Heathrow the following evening and landed the next day. This meant nothing but great things - the 25th running of the Team USA Scholarship was about to commence. I knew there would be a wonderful time ahead of me but I still stumbled into the same silly mistake I made last year by failing to pay attention while crossing the street after meeting up with Michelle Dempsey at London’s Heathrow airport and promptly attempting to hop into the driver’s seat of her car!
No matter, after hooking up with Dakota, we made a quick visit to the Cliff Dempsey Racing shop where we met with Cliff and the crew and put us right on target for a good night’s sleep.
My level of gratitude towards the Team USA Scholarship, Cliff Dempsey Racing, Team Pelfrey, Pabst Racing, LAP Motorsports, RaceCraft1, Nexgeneracers, family, friends, and especially the Valtierra family cannot be put into words. Without the help of these people and many more, I wouldn't be where I am today. I only hope that everyone who has and will stand behind me continues to understand the massive amount of respect and appreciation I have for what you are doing for me...The gift of life, as I like to say, is what was once my dream is now developing into reality! Who in the world could ask for more?
Posted on September 26, 2015 3:07 PM by Michai Stephens
"Am I going to make the cut. . . !?"
The Team USA finalists for 2015.
A dozen drivers originally were nominated for the 2015 Team USA Scholarship. This number would be trimmed to only six who were invited to the second and final round of the shootout. A few days later, the echo of my phone rang in the distance, and prompted a panicked sprint up the stairs. Mr. Jeremy Shaw was on the line; I paused to catch my breath, and then answered. After a few minutes of conversation, he told me I was invited to round two of the shootout, which would take place at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
In the following days I sat anxiously awaiting to hear who else had been chosen. When the news came, I was excited to see a few familiar names...ding, ding...here was a text from a friend and now fellow Team USA Scholarship nominee Dakota Dickerson that read, "YES, congrats man!" We soon jumped into action in an attempt to plan for the coming week. We both managed to secure and share a single test day with Huddy Motorsports at Willow Springs, Calif. With the fantastic support of the Dickerson family, I would fly in, complete the test in an F1600 Swift DB6 and remain at their home until the shootout.
Testing Huddy’s Swift at Willow Springs
The test with Huddy Motorsports and the crew was a scorching hot blast! Having been away from the cockpit of a racing car for some time, I found myself having to work my way back up to speed. Both Dakota and I were happy, and planned for a multi-day cool down back in San Diego. Playing in the ocean was a first for me but very enjoyable and relaxing. The first day of the shootout was upon us faster than expected and the instruction of Jim Leo from Pit Fit Training filled the morning. Jim did a fantastic job introducing us to multiple types of exercises and a further relaxed state of mind. The timing couldn't have been better when Dr. Jacques Dallaire followed up with a complete seminar. We worked through mental exercises showcasing the power of our minds - the perfect ending to a day that led us into the mental war zone!
Pearls of wisdom from Dr. Dallaire.
The single day on track made for an interesting dynamic. I figured the format would be similar to last year, but that was not the case. One subtle surprise after another kept me on my toes the entire time. A fantastic group of people were present, which added to the learning curve. As the day came to a close, I felt the exhaustion kicking in. The willpower put into a day like this compares to nothing else. After our goodbyes and quick stop at the local InNOut Burger, Dakota and I were headed home!
The following week brought yet another new experience. Luis Perocarpi, owner of LAP Motorsports and the John Cooper Works Mini team, had graciously invited me along for the ride down to Circuit of The Americas. In attendance was virtually the entire world of sports car racing: Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, Porsche GT3 Cup series, Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo, the TUDOR United SportsCar series (IMSA) and WEC would take to the track by storm. About 20 hours later, we arrived and set up the LAP Motorsports resort! Our view - the entire back straight and the entry to Turn 12. The sights and sounds matched the empowering nature of this track. It honestly got me thinking of the many possibilities and potential opportunities that lie within the sports car world.
Loading the Minis into the transporter
The days moved quickly, but the debilitating heat never broke! I aided in cleaning, setup and set down, driver development and more. It was fun getting my hands dirty and gaining a better understanding for a car mechanically. Everyone on the LAP John Cooper Works Mini team was extremely helpful and encouraging. We worked, played and ate like a family. The team faced many challenges throughout the week but remained focused and driven to overcome. Plus, much of it was to be expected due to it being their first year.
Having set sail for home, I had plenty of time to reflect on the week. I met some tremendous people at every level of sports car racing. Thus, many thank you notes were soon to follow. The technology, level of professionalism and jaw dropping character of the WEC cars brought a big smile to my face. My level of respect for sports cars and everyone involved had risen a ton as well.
Grooming the Nexgeneracers in Indianapolis.
There are many people to thank for opening their doors to me. Special thanks to Luis Perocarpi, O’Gara Motorsport, the entire judging panel of the Team USA Shootout, the Team USA Scholarship, RACER Magazine, Allen Berg Racing School, the Dickerson family, Huddy Motorsports, NEXGENERACERS, and finally, family and friends!
That light at the end of the tunnel is getting ever brighter. . . Only time will tell what lies beyond; it’s time to take the next step!
Posted on August 25, 2015 2:38 PM by Michai Stephens
I believe tremendous knowledge and great inspiration has been the driving force in the evolution of motorsport. Last year my efforts were focused on learning as much as possible inside of a racing car, to grasp the concepts of what it took to go fast: Vehicle and track knowledge, the effects of weather, mental acuity, physical endurance and time. All these things help us, as racing drivers, determine the definition of speed!
During the past few months, my journey has taken an unexpected turn. I have always been a student of the teachings of life. As a child, I recognized and looked up to those who were knowledgeable. I sought life experience to push my understanding far beyond my belief. That is exactly what the racing community and my dream of becoming an open-wheel racing driver has done. This is, and will continue to be, one of my proudest accomplishments, one for which I will always be grateful.
At the wheel of an SBRS Mazda MX5.
Skip Barber Racing School came back swinging with a fantastic opportunity to instruct with them. A Three Day Racing School was first in line, and a Two Day Advance course was right on its heels. Over those five days a lot of things came to mind. First, I noted this opportunity as a grateful gesture towards my development. Having spent only a year in cars, I was quick to check myself before opening my mouth! But I soon became comfortable with what I was seeing, and confident with what I was saying. The challenge for me was to connect my eyes with my mind’s perception of what was going on. I had to find the vocabulary that would help me articulate to the student what was happening on track, and what changes needed to be made.
Taking on another Three Day, Two Day and Formula Car Race Weekend meant keeping pace with a barrage of questions. I found myself answering more questions than I could remember asking myself last year! Despite their similar nature, each one of them held equal value. I say this because the circumstances were always different, but the situation was the same: bringing man and machine together, to work in harmony, to conquer a racing circuit and outperform our opponents. Each person would come to me with a different set of life experiences, views on life and current/ future goals. I found myself thoroughly enjoying every second, and soon recognized the unbelievable benefit behind it all. I was using this time to refine and further my own understanding! It was helping me identify the different ways I retained information. I soon began applying my own life experiences and knowledge to my explanations. This, without a doubt, became the coolest aspect of it all, as I began to understand who I was, what I had been through, and what I could pull from to overcome any obstacle in my path.
This sport we love has no limits, as its people and technology move hand-in-hand with the development of one innovation after the other. It has been cool watching myself became a part of this process of evolution. Becoming a professional racing driver is where I am today. The lessons I have learned and the knowledge I continue to acquire will only propel me further. Having watched the sport grow for many years, I now experience that same growth on the inside!
With fellow Team USA Scholarship winner Dane Cameron for a tour of Action Express Racing.
My continued development was recently noted by nomination for a 2015 Team USA Scholarship. Having been selected last year, I nearly feel to my knees when the news came through. This was the opportunity that helped nurture me in 2014 and has sense spring boarded many of my new experiences. Well, the 2015 nomination would soon follow in its footsteps. All candidates were asked to attend the TUDOR United SportsCar Series race weekend at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., where round one of the shootout would take place. Saturday consisted of multiple team and series organizer visits, a lovely meal at Marion Champlain’s hospitality, and concluded with interviews in the comforts of Mazda Hospitality. It felt like a day well suited for a rock star!
Seated in Scuderia Corsa’s Ferrari 458 Italia. Oh yes!
Coming from the now familiar scene of IndyCar, I wasn’t entirely sure how things would turn out. Would I know anyone, would anyone know me, would I be able to connect with them? Well, the answers to those questions were yes, yes and yes. This did two things for me; it furthered my recognition of the impressive history of the Team USA Scholarship and the place and time period I now represent because of my nomination. I witnessed this fraternity come to life before my eyes, as past winners littered the paddock. It was unbelievably encouraging and extended my inner drive to continue to oneday walk in their footsteps.
Thanks to Bryan Sellers for the Team Falken Tire tour.
With the falling sun came rising nerves; it was time for business. Names rang one by one from the moonlit Mazda trailer. Then, my name was called, a shot of nerves leaped from inside me as I headed toward the stairs. Stepping through the glass door my nerves took a final jab, and then faded away as I embraced why I was there. Having familiar faces fill the room nearly brought me to tears. I shared with them the newly refined Michai Stephens, a young man looking into the future. I used to run away from challenges, but now I run toward them and recognize that an opportunity such as this is only motivation to keep me moving forward.
I can’t thank the Team USA Scholarship, all of its supporters, Skip Barber Racing School, my family and friends enough for continuing to believe in me. Their support and inspirations elevates my personal goals and understanding of the possible future. This sport and my journey within it has taught me a great deal. I look forward to continuing my contribution to the community that has given me so much life!
P.S. Tragedy has struck the cockpit of a racing car. It has become a sacred place in many of our hearts; may his spirit continue to drive on in all of us as we take to the track for many years to come...R.I.P Mr. Wilson - forever remembered.
Posted on June 15, 2015 2:18 PM by Michai Stephens
Race One began as the angry field of 19 F1600 cars snaked their way onto the front straight at Virginia International Raceway. My focus was set on the lead car and the voice of Mr. Jay Green over the radio. "Ready . . . ready . . . ready, GREEN GREEN GREEN!!"
My eyes widened as my attention narrowed to only the view out my visor as cars began darting every which way heading into Turn One. A right hand corner stared back at us as it baited the daring to the inside and into absolute chaos. The sight of four cars abreast stayed true throughout the weekend as the reality of being in a racing car again hit me! I entered Turn One with a broad smile and exited with the determination to learn from those ahead.
This past weekend I competed in the F1600 Formula F Championship. It was my debut in the series, as well as with Jay Motorsports’ Spectrum-Honda.
Having gotten caught in a difficult traffic jam on the way, the team and I were unable to participate in the first three practice sessions. However, Friday afternoon’s fourth and final practice session was within reach.
With qualifying the next morning the team and I were tasked with shaking down the car along with the typical weekend duties of learning the car, track, our competitors, and finally engineering a setup. This meant our todo list was significant, but we stayed confident in our approach and ability to close the gap.
In the past, I have worked alongside some really good drivers who have taken the reins when it came to the car’s setup. This weekend, however, it was up to me to interpret the car and aid in its development. Having never had this responsibility before, I was nervous about giving proper and accurate feedback. So I made it a point before opening my mouth to acknowledge and confirm what else could be done from the driver’s standpoint. As the weekend progressed, bits of advice came from multiple sources, which aided in the development of the car and my personal performance. This process was rewarding and enjoyable. It represented the building blocks of what a driver and team experience on the path to success. Jay, his wife Tonya and I were all going through this together, which made it a special and memorable adventure!
We qualified 12th - a reasonable result for the hurdles we had to overcome. Headed into the first race a mutual agreement was reached between Jay and I in terms of the car’s setup. This placed us in top-10 contention and led to an eventual sixth place finish - not bad for only our third outing on track. As the sun set that evening, the team and I were looking forward to Day Two.
Sunday morning brought beautiful weather and high hopes. With two more races on the schedule, I looked to apply my new understanding of the car and track. The first race of the day introduced me to the world of visor tearoffs. Well, until this day I had never used one before. It took me until midway through Race Two to realize that my view had gone from bright and sunny to brownish gray! Then the light bulb went off, duhhhh...I was supposed to pull a tearoff!
My excitement rocketed. I reached for the tab and was quickly reminded of the rate of speed I was traveling. Having never lifted my hands outside the cockpit before, I almost concussed myself by allowing my hand to smack me in the face. As I broke it free I nearly forgot to let it go, as the snapping plastic in the wind swirled around the cockpit. This experience lasted only a second or two, but it felt like a lifetime. With a clear view and two race winning cars ahead of me, it was back to school! A ninth place finish prompted front running pace and a palpable sense of relief.
Race Three was all that stood in our way of a successful weekend. With some minor adjustments and new found confidence in the car, the outlook was promising. I found myself in a perfect position to tag onto the leaders and make my way to the front as the green flag flew, and heading into the second lap, I could feel the car had pace and was feeling good about the evolving situation at hand. However, coming down the back straightaway and approaching Turn 14, there was a car sneaking up my inside that managed to get alongside me heading into the braking zone. As we turned left for the apex of 15, I didn't see a car to my left, but left room in anticipation of one still being there. Turning in, I noticed a tire creeping to my inside, so I relaxed some steering angle and
delayed my turn in for just a moment. But the driver continued to head straight.
Touching wheels, I was lifted off the ground momentarily, only to regain contact within inches of the edge of the track. We continued to spear straight for the closing tire barrier. All my efforts to redirect the car proved to be unsuccessful, as I connected nose first.
Devastated by what had transpired, I also became frustrated with the situation. I had taken a methodical approach to the weekend, and even held myself back from time to time. All I wanted was to bring home another reputable result for the team and our supporters. I felt gutted. Jay Motorsports had done an astounding job preparing the car and helping me to feel comfortable. We had obtained the pace and level of confidence in the car and myself to hopefully break into the top five. Yet it all ended against a tire wall.
I helped Jay and his wife tear down and pack up, then buzzed off to the airport to start my journey home. From the time I left the track to the time I got home, I thought of nothing else besides what I could have done differently to avoid the incident. After further investigation, it turned out that the other driver had dropped two wheels on the exit and was unable to maintain control...a racing incident, yes; a possible honest mistake, agreed. It just sucked that it had to happen to me.
In the grand scheme of things, the weekend was an absolute blast! It proved to be one of my greatest learning experiences to date, while introducing me to the essential next step in becoming a racing driver. I would like to pass on a mighty thank you to Jay Motorsports. It was a true blessing to have had the privilege to work with them. Also on the list is Exclusive Autosports for their wisdom and encouragement. But if it weren’t for SCCA, the F1600 Formula F Championship Series and Honda for putting together a great arena to go racing, none of it would have been possible.
I truly hope and plan on continuing to compete in the F1600 Championship with Jay Motorsports. So with a bit of luck, you’ll catch me in the coming months, better prepared to take on the challenges. You need to learn to walk before you can run!
Finally, I would like to thank everyone for all the great support headed into the weekend. It was a great feeling to have raced with all of you in my heart and mind.
Posted on June 1, 2015 2:03 PM by Michai Stephens
There are 12 months in every year but ONE makes a statement like no other in the racing community. Yeah, you guessed it, the month of May! On Memorial Day weekend, the biggest spectacle in motor sports comes out to play at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Filled with emotion and outright history, my first visit to the "500" has come and gone in dramatic fashion, leaving an impression I will never forget.
Turn One at Indy. This is what it’s all about.
In May of 2014, exactly 12 months ago, I set in motion what would soon become a life changing year by securing a fully-funded season after winning the 2013 Skip Barber Racing School Shootout. My goal at the time was to make the impossible, possible. I come from a family without any ties to the racing community or motorsport. Throughout the year I would be pitted against many great rising talents. I faced this challenge with a tremendous desire to earn and maintain a sense of belonging.
As the green flag flew in the first race in May at NOLA Motorsports Park, I shot up from fourth to first place, and then held the lead for the first lap of the 2014 season. At that moment, I felt the connection I had been searching for. Getting to that point cemented my confidence in the desire to be behind the wheel of a racing car, and I felt a genuine dedication to my goals. With the tremendous support of others, my passion strengthened as the year progressed.
The highlight of the year was the nomination and then selection for the Team USA Scholarship. My time spent overseas became a major turning point in my development and learning curve. A third place finish in the Grand Finale at the Walter Hayes Trophy has undoubtedly become my fondest memory in racing. Returning home, an end-of-the-year Skip Barber Racing School Championship Shootout was all that stood in my way in respect to a ride in the 2015 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda. The competition concluded with me earning the highest judging score and highest accumulated total score. Unfortunately, one of the five races was eliminated from the final scoring, which dropped me to an extremely close second place finish.
Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti have been SO supportive!
Moving into 2015, Indianapolis started to become a second home, rather than a place to visit. With the plethora of resources and support at my disposal, I muscled the three hour ride down I65
more times than I could count. But heading into the week of the 500, this ride felt different. An opportunity to experience and participate in an up-and-coming SAFEisFAST.com video tutorial, Mazda Road To Indy Seminars and Summits, the traditional Day (Night) Before the 500, and, of course, the Indianapolis 500, meant I had a pretty jammin’ schedule!
As the week progressed, the feeling of comfort I had found showcased itself many times over. The world of motorsport has become a way of life for me now. Gaining a foothold has proven to be nothing short of a cherished accomplishment, with this progressively shrinking world becoming more and more enjoyable. I had been working on some ideas over the past weeks, and found myself enjoying a conversation the night before the 500 with Mr. Jay Green from Jay Motorsports. The MAGICAL month of MAY struck down with all its might when an agreement was reached between us to partner up in the coming SCCA Pro F1600 Championship race at VIR. I could hardly believe it! All my efforts in 2015 had been leading up to this very reason. The opportunity and privilege to reconnect my rear end into the seat of an open wheel racing car!
Ready for the start of the "500"
From experiencing the 500 for the first time, to moving forward in pursuit of my dream, I hope this magical month will become a staple in my career. With hopes of one day racing in the 500, this early connection to this oh-so-special month has helped me to feel right at home...To those out there wavering on their dream, I encourage you to take the FIRST STEP. Challenge your belief of what is possible. Heck, you may be surprised where you end up...
My deepest appreciation goes out to everyone in our sport and those who have supported me. The Team USA Scholarship, SAFEisFAST.com, Racer Magazine, Skip Barber Racing School, RaceCraft1, iRacing.com, Mazda & The Road To Indy, Andersen Promotions, Top Gear Technologies, HySpeedLLC, BTRacing, Styledaesthetic, SCCA, HPD, NXG, the fast world of INDYCAR, and many more for your incredible efforts towards the world of motorsport!
As we drive forward, I am excited to discover what the future holds!
Posted on April 24, 2015 1:50 PM by Michai Stephens
From legendary Titans to those in pursuit of their own legacy, the Grand Prix of Long Beach had it all and didn't disappoint!
Hanging with the champs - Dario Franchitti.
The good times kicked off while transferring flights in Arizona. Approaching the gate, I spotted a familiar face. It was Dario Franchitti! He noticed me too, and motioned me over to introduce me to Mr. Harley Cluxton and his wife Colette. Now a group of four, we boarded the plane with force and authority. When we landed in Long Beach, the Cluxtons kindly offered to share their cab to the Hilton Hotel, the location of the Road Racing Drivers Club dinner honoring Indy 500 and Pike’s Peak legend Bobby Unser.
Thanks to the support of the Team USA Scholarship, the RRDC, SAFEisFAST (http://safeisfast.com) , and all of their supporters, among them RACER Magazine’s Paul Pfanner, INDYCAR and Mazda, I was able to attend and experience a multitude of events during the week, including the RRDC dinner, the 23rd Anniversary RACER party and the 41st annual Grand Prix of Long Beach itself. It was an incredible experience and one which allowed me to familiarize myself with many new faces.
Tasked initially with unboxing decorations for the RRDC dinner, I was running a box cutter along the edge of a package when I froze in place. In front of me was a Team USA Scholarship poster board filled with all the names of past recipients, including myself! Adjacent to that was an image of me holding my third place trophy at the Walter Hayes event in Silverstone. Emotions hammered me as I tried to hold it together. Becoming lost in the image, I thought that no matter where life leads me, I will always have the honor and privilege of looking back on the day when the racing world accepted me as a racing driver!
A memorable day drew toward a close and my newly obtained SoCal lifestyle continued on a high, topped off by dinner with fellow Team USA winner Neil Alberico at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles!
Thursday morning allowed for some personal time. I hopped on a bus and made my way to an outdoor pool along the beach. Finding a killer spot to eat on my way back was a bonus, and geared me up to help with the finishing touches for the event. At this stage the only thing left to do was fancy up and enjoy the evening. As people arrived so did the stories. No matter where you turned history was all around. I spoke, but mainly listened, to the people and their connections to the sport. I even thought to myself, "who needs the internet anymore"?! The good times continued through the night and ended with the audience of almost 400 people applauding Mr. Unser.
Now headed into the race weekend, track activity picked up. Excited to finally meet and see teams from the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, I made a beeline for the Mazda SpeedSource team and was greeted by familiar faces. The camaraderie shared between everyone made for a sound environment focused on results and development. It certainly was eyeopening and sparked a few ideas as to what sports car racing would be like. But back on track, I made sure to use the rest of the day to connect with the people I had met previously in St. Petersburg.
As night fell so did the level of intensity at the track. People started to unwind, content with their results and confident in their preparation for the next day. The great vibes carried right into the 23rd Anniversary party of RACER Magazine as "lights - camera - action" was put into full effect. Mr. Pfanner and his crew put on an outstanding event filled with all the right people from all the right places. Being my first time attending, I was blown away by the comfort level of it all. It was a great opportunity to speak with people away from the racetrack and allowed for some great conversation.
Sunday morning had arrived and couldn't have come at a better time. The energy was high and folks were ready to go racing in the Verizon IndyCar Series! Finally nearing the end of my todo list, I was able to venture out and do a little freelancing. With every business card handed out, one was gained in return. Soon, I found myself with only a few cards left. As the sun set, so did my rear end as I snagged a chair, and rested my feet for a few minutes. There I sat, atop the commentary box of the Long Beach racetrack. I felt like I could see the entire world around me and in return the world was accepting of me!Earning my place on and off the track is a result of time, respect, patience and the unbelievable support from an increasing number of people.
Before heading to the airport, I got a chance to stop by the RACER headquarters. It was awesome to finally see the place firsthand, especially since many of my blog posts have been filtered through their hands to be displayed on the RACER.com webpage. This made for some great and entertaining meet-and-greets. After sharing some conversation about the weekend and future plans, it was time to hit the road.
In pursuit of my "happiness" I have found love, passion and a continued understanding for who I really am. My heart and drive for success goes out to all of you who have and will support me on this journey. As those before me have said, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." I say, BRING IT ON and THANK YOU for your continued support!!!
Posted on April 8, 2015 11:53 AM by Michai Stephens
Just as Chicago’s brutal weather appeared to be coming to an end, it struck again...and several more inches of snowfall sent me into a tizzy! I sent out a hope and a prayer to the sky above, asking for relief. My answer in return...the Verizon IndyCar Series season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla.! In attendance, too, were all three tiers on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, the Pirelli World Challenge, Robby Gordon’s stadium trucks and, thankfully, me!! Without any on-track activity on the agenda, my goal was to find, meet and understand the people who made and continue to make the world I
Thanks to Tim Walsh and Afterburner Autosport, I was gifted a place to stay during the week, travel to and from the track, and a continued affiliation with the team. All of which allowed for my next adventures to be possible. I must admit, I learned and accomplished a lot more during a weekend without being in the seat of a racecar than I had expected. After returning home, I looked back and could not have felt more satisfied.
The week began for me on Wednesday as I helped unload the Afterburner hauler. I was then set loose on my duties. This included helping the Andersen Promotions hospitality team, meeting with the Mazda crew, led by John Doonan, and tracking down the likes of Derrick Walker, Dario Franchitti, Tony Kannan, Mike Hull, Tim Cindric, Bryan Herta, Bobby Rahal, Marshall Pruett, Paul Pfanner, Robin Miller, Chris Pantani and Jeremy Shaw. Wow, what a list! So many important names. I felt like a pingpong ball being smacked in every direction - high, low, short, soft, and at times even with a little bit of backspin. As the step counter climbed, so did my understanding and appreciation for the sport.
Racing, as many of us know, is a passion shared by a wide variety of people. Seeing the weekend from start to finish allowed me to live that experience. The folks in attendance represented all walks of life. With the current craziness of the surrounding world, it was great to see that a common attraction could unify and set many of these conflicts aside for one weekend. Racing is a culture without boundaries, and whether you’re a pure car enthusiast, aspiring mechanic, engineer, crew guy, director, team manager, spotter, event planner, or driver, racing seems to have an avenue for everyone and all with the same goal in mind, to move forward!
Through all my efforts in 2014, the 2015 season opener in St. Pete was a souvenir for me to take home and hold onto. I experienced the ferocity of pit lane and its controlled chaos. Then came the calming of VIP seating, thanks to Cooper Tire and Andersen Promotions, followed by a behind-the-scenes look into Race Control granted by Mr. Brian Barnhart which ramped the intensity back up. My fortunes continued with a tour of the Chevrolet engineering truck presented by Steve O’Connor, whom I met in England last fall when visiting Ilmor Engineering on behalf of the Team USA Scholarship.
My praise and thanks go out to everyone mentioned and those who supported me during this time. The dots are becoming more connected and how all the players come together is becoming clearer and clearer. I used to be intimidated by the fast moving world of motorsports. But now I have acquired the speed and knowledge to keep up, so please keep an eye out for me, I’ll see you at the track!!
Posted on March 4, 2015 11:44 AM by Michai Stephens
During the last week I have experienced a refining process of my belief in myself. In pursuit of my dream, my desire and commitment to something I love has challenged me with uncertainties and misunderstanding. These minor bumps in the road seem to come with the territory. I believe this happens when one holds something close to one’s heart. With hardship there is doubt, as with success comes joy and confidence. Learning how to take it all in stride continues to be a major part of this journey.
Conditions at Barber were treacherous.
Just four days prior to the first day of the 2015 Cooper Tires WinterFest, I received a call notifying me that I might be able to participate in the event with Afterburner Autosport. I was shocked, to the say the least! I knew the event was coming up but had not planned to be a part of it. In disbelief, I paused for a moment...what do I do? A million thoughts rushed through my head, from the possible negatives to the almost unfathomable positives. I thought, how could this even be up for discussion...this is what you want to do isn’t it? To be honest, I was afraid, frightened by the thought of failure and misfortune. So many things could go wrong, but yet so many things could go right, and there I stood, struck in place by my own indecision.
The Afterburner team was extremely accommodating.
Just minutes later, I received another call. It was from one of my closest mentors, Kelly Jones, from RaceCraft1 Motorsports Training. I shared the good news with him. Kelly knew about my current situation and understood I could not afford to incur any crash damage costs. With a total of six races in such a short period of time this appeared unrealistic. He shared an emotion with me that he thought would silence my doubt. "See the opportunity hidden behind the obstacles". Nothing more needed to be said. I was going to have to challenge my belief, love and passion for my dream. This was the next step. Whether I planned for it or not, I had to believe there was reason behind it.
After racing up to Minnesota to meet the team and get a rough fitting to the car, I barely snagged a seat on the plane and was headed to New Orleans the next day. Looking forward to another opportunity of a lifetime was the easy part; taking full advantage of it would prove to be a little tougher. I had mixed emotions of the NOLA circuit, but thought it was fitting that I would be making my USF2000 debut at the same place I officially started my racing career with Skip Barber Racing School last year.
My time at NOLA started out tough, with a miscalculation on my part spinning me into the inside wall on the front straight. Now remember what I had said earlier, I was going into this knowing that I could not afford any additional cost, let along crash damages. I couldn't understand why it had only taken three laps in prepractice for the incident to occur. There I was, sitting with my hands in my lap as cars continued to rush by. Embarrassed, shocked and in disbelief, I didn't know what to say or do.
Working with Mazda Road to Indy driver coach and fellow Team USA Scholarship winner Joel Miller
After returning to the tent, Tim Walsh and his supporting crew welcomed me with open arms, more concerned about my safety than the damage done to the car. This support meant the world to me but unfortunately didn’t change much. As directed by Tim, I took time to myself. I was consoled by David Storvick from IndyCar Ministry and family back home. My belief was being challenged in every direction. Why was this happening! Having all this emotion inside of me could only lead to two things. Quit, give up and walk away from this, or face it head on and channel this additional energy towards moving forward to pursue my dream.
So that is what I decided to do. The team did a fantastic job getting the car put back together in enough time for Race One. Sadly, they were not able to get a proper alignment done, but I believed it to be fitting punishment for my mistake. As the day progressed, so did my on track times. A better understanding of the car and its abilities was becoming more apparent. With all that was going on, we continued to battle the issue of not having enough time to properly fit me to the car. Bringing the two days to a close felt more like I had been through USF2000 boot camp then anything else.
With a few days off and a road trip to Alabama ahead of us, it was time to iron out some of the wrinkles. Barber Motorsports Park brought on a new set of challenges, like not knowing the track and extreme weather conditions. The first day was cut short due to intense rainfall, which caused a severe accumulation on track. It was my first time driving this car in the rain and also my first time experiencing the effects of hydroplaning in such dramatic fashion. Keeping the car in one piece was a major plus!
On the final day, we faced melting snow and 30-degree temperature. But WinterFest had to stay true to its name, so the conditions seemed fitting. With Race One canceled, only two remained. In the first race of the day, Turn One became littered with spinning and colliding cars all around me. With no way out of the madness, I opted to park my car in the gravel trap. Once pulled out, I found myself two laps behind and faced with another opportunity to learn the track and better myself. I ultimately would pass a couple cars, but remained towards the back of the field due to being two laps down.
Throughout the course of the second race, I could feel the pieces of the puzzle coming together. I had regained trust in the car and myself. As the laps wound down, I felt the necessary next step. I was no longer being driven by the car; I was in control! On one of the laps, I slipped into the zone. All that was holding me back before was gone. As I crossed start/finish, I realized what had just occurred and it shocked me! I would go on to finish the race in more of a conscious state, but walking away from that race I knew I had done it. I might not have won or
even finished in the top five, but I achieved what I was looking for from day one. With all that had occurred, in four days I tamed the beast.
More speed came with every outing. It’s all about experience, right?
It wasn't just about racing for me those few days. It was about refining the belief I had in my dream and myself. Something I had held onto for 21 years of my life was being challenged and I needed to step up. For the first time, I walked away from a racing car confident in my next move, knowing what it would have taken to obtain those elusive seconds. But to me, that time was no longer lost or hiding. The relationship between time in the car and track time were on the same page. Now I wanted more then anything else to just have one more day in the car, to have one more session, to have one more lap...
My experience in the 2015 Cooper Tires Winterfest could not have been possible without the support of Afterburner Autosport, the Team USA Scholarship, Andersen Promotions, Aurora Bearing Company, Sparco, RLP, Skip Barber Racing School and RaceCraft1 Motorsports Training, along with family and friends. Having the opportunity to carry a SAFEisFAST logo was an honor as I hoped others would take notice. I asked for more from folks than I ever had done before. From all the paperwork, to the travel and sleeping arrangements, and parts for my helmet and suit, experiencing such great support meant the world to me.
Not everyone will understand and see the battles within the war. But the soldier and those who fought with him will. To the rest of the world, they see an end result and that’s fine, because I enjoy this way of life and wouldn't change it for the world!
Knowing who I am and where I want to be is easy, now let’s get me in a Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship seat powered by Mazda.
Posted on January 30, 2015 11:25 AM by Michai Stephens
Looking back on 2014, I find myself being reminded of a wide range of emotions and experiences. I had taken part in my first ever auto race. I had won some and lost some, but whether it be good or bad, I always found the time to reflect. Doing so allowed me to recognize so much more. What I found to be the biggest benefit of all was the ability to move forward in life without regret. Coming to peace with all my past experiences granted me a greater appreciation for life and the privileges I have been accorded.
December was just as busy as the rest of the year, and included visits to the Performance Racing Industry Show in Indianapolis and the Skip Barber Racing School INDYCAR Academy Shootout in Sebring, Fla. Both were memorable.
Quite early during my three days at PRI, something magical happened and I was recognized! A smile spanning longer then the Golden Gate Bridge took hold of me. I knew then it was official, I had been acknowledged as Michai Stephens, an aspiring open-wheel racer from Evanston, Ill.!! I couldn't help but recall all it had taken to get here and what an incredible support system I had every step of the way.
All set for an interview with RACER’s Robin Miller
Ultimately, I was able to catch up with multiple drivers from steps of the Mazda Road To Indy, allowing me to get a better understanding about the path I hope to follow in the future. Then to cap it off, I found myself face to face with Robin Miller from RACER Magazine. Talk about a surprise out of left field - he wanted to talk to me...on camera! The interview went great and was soon posted to Racer.com for the world to see.
Touring Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s shop with Mike Hull.
While I was in Indy I had an opportunity to visit two Verizon IndyCar Series teams, Chip Ganassi Racing and Bryan Herta Autosport, through contacts provided to me via the Team USA Scholarship. Wow! The teams boasted a tremendous level of professionalism and genuine love for the sport. Everyone within those walls took great pride in their position and valued the end goal over their personal ones. Seeing such a large group of people come together gave me a better understanding of the immense planning and commitment it takes to be successful.
Then it was on to Phase Two of my journey, to Florida and the Skip Barber Racing School, after being invited to speak to the 2014 contestants for the INDYCAR Academy, which I had been fortunate enough to win one year earlier. I was going back to the place where racing officially became a part of my life and I was set loose on an incredible journey. Skip Barber had provided me with a home away from home. It was a place of freedom and limitless possibilities. I wanted my presentation to be motivating, heartfelt and filled with that very message of possibility. Having collected some photos from the year, I was told how long they wanted me to present. "One hour please" was the request, and I hoped my stunned face wasn't too noticeable. The last presentation I gave back in grade school had been a whopping 15 minutes! As everyone settled into their seats, the rustling of chairs and shuffling of paper began to elevate my nerves. I began to combat that by acting as if it was the start to a race, confident that my preparation and belief in myself was all I needed. After uttering the first word, it felt like the drop of the green, GO GO GO!
I ended by encouraging all the competitors to go above and beyond what others and themselves thought was possible. "I challenge you to achieve more then what I was able to. Push yourself and the people around you to greater heights!" A few folks stayed to ask more personal questions and to share their appreciation with me. It was extremely rewarding to hear that I had become a big reason as to why many of them were at this shootout, or returning for a second time. I felt as if I had been given a great gift, the opportunity and privilege to inspire! I powerfully.
Fortunately for me, several IndyCar teams were testing on the other side of the race track, so after my morning duties had been taken care of, I headed over to watch. Jeremy Shaw had formally introduced me to Dario Franchitti while in England at the Formula Ford Festival, and when I saw him the day before, he had encouraged me to stop by. He was very welcoming and quickly turned his attention to introducing me to his good friend Tony Kanaan. Mr. Franchitti had this ongoing joke with "TK" about how I looked just like him! Before I could get a word out he already knew who I was and acknowledged our physical similarities. Suddenly, there I was speaking to two men whom I looked up to and watched on TV all my life. It absolutely blew me away.
I had been fortunate enough to meet the team’s managing director, Mr. Mike Hull, when I visited the shop a few days earlier, and once again he couldn't have been more welcoming. Before I knew it, I was standing in the pit stall with a headset, listing to the voice of Scott Dixon debriefing with his engineers. It was fascinating to be so close to the action.
Bryan Herta Autosport also was testing that day, and while the team’s tent wasn't quite the same size as Ganassi’s, there was absolutely the same level of professionalism. Mr. Herta was kind enough to let me hop on the stand and grab a headset. I listened in closely and did my best to stay out the way. Gabby Chaves was the current driver and what was so cool about that was the deeper connection I felt in comparison to Dixon or Kanaan. Yes, Dixon and Kanaan were greats, but Gabby felt more like a peer - someone still working their way up the ladder. He brought everything back into perspective for me, and my motivation to be in a place like him one day skyrocketed.
Enjoying that experience with the IndyCar teams just yards away from where my dream came true was very special to me. I realized I had come a long way in just one short year. Now, armed with a deeper level of encouragement and belief, I feel that anything is possible. Why settle for the sky when you can reach for the stars.