Michai Stephens: Across The Pond
Updated: Feb 8
Brigstock, England – To live the dream. Ten p.m. departure from O’Hare International Airport, arriving 12 noon (the next day), in London Heathrow. The emotions began to well up as I said my goodbyes to friends and family. After being shuffled through security, I caught a glimpse of their eyes and stretched for one final wave. The security scanner made its final pass, and then I was off, taking the first steps on an adventure that will mold me as an individual and as a better racing driver. With every passing step I was walking, breathing and feeling my dream.
I arrived at the gate with a drink and a sandwich in hand. Once I set eyes on the plane, it was clear that this would be the largest aircraft I had boarded. It felt like a scene from a movie. There were rows and rows of seats, with First Class seating looking more like mini space pods then anything else. I found my seat and chatted with my fellow travelers. I quickly made note of the many different types of people on board; not a single race nor culture was spared. I found this to be interesting and kinda cool at the same time. After cycling through the onboard movies I found a couple of good flicks and settled in.
Two movies later and one heck of a snooze, I awoke just as the plane was landing – I had arrived. After speaking with the customs agent it was time to go find Mrs. Michelle Dempsey. I didn’t have the chance to look left or right before she had eyes on me! She gave me a great big hug and we headed off to the car, which is when things started to become interesting. In the movies you see folks driving on the opposite side of the road and the police cars painted in yellow and blue. But it all felt so surreal. It was definitely a different world than what I was used to. I approached the car and naturally got in on the wrong side, a trend that would carry over for the next couple of days! We pulled away from the parking garage and merged into traffic. Yet again my American brain had me all confused as I got quite a fright. Driving on the left side of the road seemed very confusing at first.
Michelle and I headed straight for the workshop to meet the man behind CliffCliff Dempsey Racing. The sight of the all-white hauler, plastered with CDR and Team USA Scholarship logos was beautiful. The magnitude of what I was a part of started to really hit home once I saw the beautifully crafted Ray GR08/09 chassis. To know that one of them would be fitted and tuned for me sent chills down my spine.
The next day Michelle took me to the local ASDA (our Walmart) to pick up a few things. On our way to check out, I spotted an AUTOSPORT magazine. “Secrets of Overtaking” starring Mansell, Hakkinen and Hamilton had caught my attention. I shared my find with Michelle and she informed me of the magazine’s stature and quickly flipped it open. My eyes lit up as the same Ray chassis I had just seen were now wrapped in Team USA colors and stretched across the center of the page! I was in disbelief with the find as it read, “Telitz, Stephens win U.S. Prize.” Michelle and I both got a great kick out of the find and, of course, I purchased the magazine.
Over the following two days we adjusted pedals, seat and shifter to a more comfortable position. In the course of doing so, I had to get in and out of the car many times over. It became an exciting and fun thing for me because every time I got back in, it felt more and more comfortable. By day’s end we were happy with the results and loaded up for Oulton Park. The objective was to participate in test sessions on Friday and two races on Saturday.
I jumped at the chance to ride with Cliff and the gang in the 40-foot long hauler. The best way to describe it would be like riding in a giant fish bowl. The cab sat about 15 feet off the ground on air bags the size of me! With every turn came a gentle pitch from left to right as we were treated to a gorgeous drive to the track. The sun was just setting as we arrived at Oulton Park, so with an early morning ahead of us, we locked everything down and headed for the hotel.
A slightly damp and cool feeling filled the air that Friday morning. But there was no need to fear as the sun and modest breeze started to clear things up a bit. We arrived at the circuit and, boy, was it a sight to see – my first circuit outside the USA! From the look of things it seemed to be a lovely, flowing place with elevation changes and a great mixture of corners. We set up base camp and prepared for Practice One. The session was going to be 30 minutes in length and was open to my own discretion. Feeling out the new-to-me H-pattern gearbox configuration was priority number one. After working into it, I turned my attention to feeling out the balance of the car and understanding a few of the corners. By session’s end I was grinning ear-to-ear.
The circuit was wonderful, full of challenges and demanding of respect. The conditions were wet/damp and by the end of the session parts of the circuit began drying out. Simply pulling off into the pits and cruising back over to the hauler was a pleasure. By the time I had gotten out of the car, the next session was just minutes away. There wasn’t much time to go over the objectives for the next session, but my confidence level in the car was rising and I continued on.
As the second session got underway, I found myself on the gearbox of two other cars and I took in the different atmosphere. As we picked up speed, the car’s balance and limitations began to appear to me. At this stage many parts of the circuit were dry, but one section of corners, leading into a fast double apex right-hander called Druid’s, stayed dark and wet. Cliff and others had pointed out the tree cover that lay heavily over that part of the circuit. From what I could see, the entry was drying out lap after lap. I started picking out turn-in points and I prepared for the loss of grip just after the apex. About five laps later the beautifully crafted Oulton Park bit back at me.
At the turn in, I ran just a hair wide, turning in on a damp patch. I lost the rear end of the car and did my best to correct it, but slid wide onto the grass and the rest was history. Colliding with the tire barrier, I dropped my head in disappointment. I knew what it took to get here and felt horrible for letting the remaining sessions and day go to waste. Thankfully I wasn’t injured, but the car was a different story. After being cleared by medical, it was time to pack up and head home. This was the quickest I had ever arrived to and then left any track. On the ride home I replayed the incident in my head many times over. I composed a list of all possible factors that could have caused this and where my calculations went wrong. It wasn’t until Cliff and I sat down later and watched the video that we saw the cause of the crash.
Reviewing the video brought a slight sense of relief as notes were taken on what not to do. Since then I have been hanging low and studying all the information that I can.
I want to thank everyone for their tremendous efforts in helping me to learn these very valuable lessons. The roller-coaster ride of being a racing driver is continuing to teach me something new everyday. Good, bad or indifferent, dwelling on the past and not learning from your mistakes won’t help. Taking hits and getting back up is all part of the game. It’s how you get back up that matters!