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Michai Stephens: The Race Within

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

Evanston, Ill. – 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.

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 pre-practice 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….

Michai Stephens

Images courtesy of IMS Photography, LLC

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