Racing has been my passion since the age of 9, and the center of my professional life since 1973. Along the way I have been inspired by some of the greatest racers of all-time whom I’ve seen in the prime of their careers. I’ve also seen brilliant young talents climb to the top of the sport and become legends through dedication and courage. On that latter point, I am forever proud of my role in supporting Jeremy Shaw in creating the hugely successful Team USA Scholarship program in 1990 that has helped launch the careers of young racers like Jimmy Vasser, Bryan Herta, Buddy Rice, Joey Hand, Andy Lally, A.J. Allmendinger, Bryan Sellers, J.R. Hildebrand, Dane Cameron, Josef Newgarden, Conor Daly, Connor De Phillippi, Oliver Askew and so many others. These terrific racers have gone on to write their own remarkable chapters in the history of our sport.
Like Jeremy and the sponsors and benefactors who’ve supported the Team USA Scholarship, I am motivated by a strong desire to help young racers fulfill their dreams because that same passion for driving and racing is what got me to where I am today. From the beginning, I have been searching for the one great natural talent who could go all the way.
As the world emerged from the Great Recession and Carpocalypse of 2008-2011, the Skip Barber Racing School was on the edge of insolvency due to a series of misfortunes and bad decisions made by various owners and managers following Skip Barber selling the company in 1999. (Thankfully, the school is under new ownership and prospering today). I’d admired Skip Barber the man since he won the first-ever SCCA Formula Ford championship in 1969 (and 1970), and I’d known him since 1974, when he decided to retire and launch a racing school. I was honored when he asked me to help him position and brand the business in 1980, and designed the company logo and visual identity system that has remained in place ever since.
Given this background, in early 2012 Pfanner Communications had a short-term assignment to review the positioning and marketing of the struggling company. The owner of the Skip Barber School at the time wanted a big idea to reboot momentum and communicate the core values and mission of the Skip Barber brand. I proposed a competition for anyone who had attended the Skip Barber Racing School. It would be called the Skip Barber IndyCar Academy in support of the school’s relationship with the series. The top performers would receive credits to race in the school series, with the overall winner receiving a full season. The idea was to expand the opportunity to those who would never have had a chance unless pure talent was the only criteria.
Fittingly, 33 of the very best students out of the hundreds that the Skip Barber Racing School teaches each year were invited to a shootout in Sebring, Florida in January 2013. They were selected based on pure natural ability by the school’s deeply experienced and highly respected instructors. Age was not a primary consideration, nor was marketability. It was all about raw driving talent.
I was on hand to see my idea come to life, and I was immediately impressed by then-20-year-old Michai Stephens. He looked like a veteran, but had only one Skip Barber three-day Racing School to his credit. My first interaction with Michai was memorable in that he made direct eye contact and had a calm, Senna-like intensity. He handled himself like a pro, and the young African-American’s quiet confidence, poise and humility made a lasting impression. Every Skip Barber IndyCar Academy finalist had completed a background sheet, and Michai’s sincerity matched our first meeting:
Q: Did you ever think you would have the chance to go pro?
A: I never believed I would have the chance to become a professional racing driver, even though I thought about it every day. That is why this opportunity is so very important to me.
Q: Describe your everyday life: job, school, family.
A: When not working construction five days out of the week, my life consists of sharing quality time with my family, friends and thinking about the dream to race. At the moment I am taking time away from my studies at Arizona State University where I major in industrial design. For the first time in my life I am pursuing a path I am most passionate about while doing my best to enjoy it.
Q: If you could be any pro racecar driver in the world for one day, who would it be and why?
A: In my mind Lewis Hamilton stands apart from all the rest. I admire his passion and respect for the sport. I also appreciate the bond he shares with his father, a bond a lot like the one I share with mine. His rise to the top of Formula 1 has become a source of inspiration for me as I pursue my dream.
Unfortunately, I had to leave the shootout early because of a prior business commitment. I will admit that I was later surprised and slightly disappointed to learn that Michai was not the winner, but I am not one to second-guess the Instructors and judges, so I accepted that this was not Michai’s time, and hoped he would somehow find his way forward. He was special on track and off the track, and his only handicaps were: 1) a complete lack of racing experience; 2) a relatively late start; 3) a lack of family financial resources. Other than those three “minor” issues, Michai looked like a sure thing to me.
So it came to pass that Michai returned to Sebring that November for the second annual Skip Barber IndyCar Academy competition, and he was on a mission. Work commitments prevented me from being at the track, but I was thrilled when Michai won the top prize, and I was relieved that he had believed in himself and earned the opportunity to finally begin racing in 2014, because I have seen very few racers who possess his raw natural talent and who’ve had the will to do what it takes to move forward. He was immediately successful, winning six poles, four races and four second places against experienced competition.
His efforts earned an opportunity to audition in another shootout, this time for that year’s Team USA Scholarship on Auto Club Speedway’s road course in Allen Berg Racing School cars. Once again, I was invited to be a judge, and what I witnessed was inspiring. Every young nominee was worthy in their ability and on-track pace, but it was Michai who impressed the judges, along with brilliantly talented young Aaron Telitz who would later go on to shine in the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, and more recently in IMSA.