Evanston, Ill. – 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 would never have thought by following my own dream and passion that I could affect the lives of others so 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 . . .