Michai Stephens: Team Effort
Alton, Va. — 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 to-do 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 tear-offs. 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 tear-off!
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.