As today marks the second Wednesday in April, we are excited to reveal the second part in our four-part series highlighting the story of Mazda Road to Indy prospect, Michai Stephens. Last week we debuted the series with part one, introducing the circumstances that brought Michai from driving on video games into a race car for the first time.
Next up we have part two of the series where today we will chronicle Michai’s introduction to the driver training facility, RaceCraft1, as well as his first full season in racing.
Check out part two in our series, A Leap of Faith: The Michai Stephens Story.
Chapter 2, “The Return Like No Other”
Winning the 2013 Skip Barber IndyCar Academy Shootout on his second try, secured Michai a primarily-funded ride in the 2014 Skip Barber Racing School Formula Car Summer series.
While the triumph put Michai on-track during the summer series, the scholarship did not allow for additional testing days or instruction.
Enter the lead instructor of RaceCraft1, Kelly Jones.
Created by Jones in 2011, RaceCraft1 is a place for drivers – both amateur and professional – to develop their skills in a controlled environment. Partnering with the PitFit Training Center in Indianapolis, the facility offers the most thorough training plans in the industry centered on very specific and detailed development techniques.
As a reward to capturing the 2013 Skip Barber IndyCar Academy Shootout, Jones had arranged to offer the winner a free three-day training session at RaceCraft1, with the runner-up receiving one day of free training and third place allotted a three-hour consultation.
By taking a look at the competition and how his Skip Barber Racing Series peers would be preparing on-track in-between events, Michai recognized he not only needed to bridge the decade long gap of experience, but to also find a way to beat them.
Coinciding with that line of thinking, Jones stepped up to offer Michai a full season’s worth of instruction – at no cost – to help the developing driver.
Acknowledging that they were taking a chance on the opportunity, Michai noted that, “we were not concerned about RaceCraft1’s credibility. We were just happy to be in a room with wheels and pedals.”
Over the course of the 2014 racing season, Jones and Michai collaborated as Michai fought his way through a trying Skip Barber Race Series campaign. Over the course of that summer, the two challenged each other even more in an effort to better themselves.
“I have learned as much from Michai in our teachings as he has from me,” Jones stated to Open-Wheels in December. “From an instructor’s viewpoint, it forced me to dig deep to find ways to explain concepts and do it in an efficient manner.”
During that season, Michai’s most consistent competition came in the form of Australian driver Luke Gabin. Hailing from the same karting circles as current Formula One driver Daniel Riccardo, Gabin won the Karts to Cars shootout which had also granted him three days of training at RaceCraft1.
In recalling Gabin’s talent, Jones stated that he puts each driver he instructs through a baseline test to gauge their current aptitude. Much to his surprise, Jones went on to mention that Gabin would put on an impressive, jaw-dropping display of driving that was noted as the best baseline test they had seen at RaceCraft1.
The Skip Barber Racing Series had placed Gabin and Michai in separate brackets of competition for the 2014 summer championship. This means that the two drivers would only face each other when “doubling-up” on a race weekend by running both class sessions.
Throughout the first half of the year, the duo would not meet. Each led their respective divisions, and finally they faced one another on-track at Thunder Hill in an important first showdown.
For the epic race, Michai actually out-qualified the more experienced Gabin by putting his car on the pole. Michai would streak off to a small lead during the opening stages of the event, and while Gabin began to settle in for a battle, Michai did as any rookie driver would in that position: he tightened up.
After leading the first few laps of the race, Michai made a mistake that cost him the lead while Gabin raced to victory.
While frustrating, the event allowed Michai to understand what drives him to succeed and overcome the many obstacles and lessons taught in life. Thanks to the ever uniquely put way of Motorsports
“Racing, and the pursuit of becoming a professional racing driver has challenged me in more ways than I can imagine,” he said. “It pits me against my greatest fears and has brought to light my greatest strengths at the same time.”
Michai progressed through the season with more consistent results as a rookie in racing and Motorsports. The Skip Barber Racing School driver would make up for opportunities against Gabin down the road.
As the championship was coming to a close, Skip Barber instructor Bob Ziegel informed Michai of the Team USA Scholarship. Founded by motor racing icon Jeremy Shaw, the Team USA Scholarship provides two developing American drivers with the opportunity to race overseas in the prestigious Formula Ford Festival and Walter Hayes Trophy events.
While Ziegel made first mention of the scholarship, he made it clear to Michai that Shaw was unlikely to select the Illinois native due to his age and lack of driving experience. After much persistence, Ziegel placed Michai in front of Shaw at an IndyCar race weekend in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
From there, Michai took the ball and ran with it.
Be sure to return on Wednesday, April 18 for chapter three of the Michai Stephens story.
Image courtesy of Michai Stephens