In barely six months, Michai had gone from his first-ever race to earning one the highest honors that most young American racers dream of. Now he was about to be stress-tested under intense pressure racing against some of the best young racers in the world at the prestigious British Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch and the Walter Hayes Trophy at Silverstone.
“It was an almost vertical learning curve for him,” remembers Shaw. “He didn’t know the team, didn’t know the tracks, didn’t know the car and hadn’t even been out of the country before. But he was turning good laps virtually from the get-go. He was incredibly unfortunate at Brands Hatch, taken out in two separate incidents, one in qualifying and another in his heat race – an innocent victim on both occasions – but the way in which he bounced back at Silverstone was astonishing. The conditions were constantly changing, but he took everything in his stride. He made some fantastic passes – one I clearly recall around the outside of the British Formula Ford champion at Brooklands Corner in the wet – and from a field of well over 100 cars, he managed to finish third in the Grand Final.
“That weekend I watched most of the time from the BRDC Suite with Dario Franchitti and I remember saying, ‘what have we got here? This young man is pretty special.’ Dario didn’t disagree.”
Michai returned to England in 2015 as one of only a handful of drivers to have earned a pair of Team USA Scholarships. Once again, he impressed, earning podium finishes during the course of both weekends at Brands Hatch and Silverstone. Unfortunately, his hopes of victory in the Walter Hayes Trophy were dashed by a wayward rival during the semi-final round which left him with a broken thumb, although his disappointment was tempered shortly afterward when he was invited to join a brand-new team for its initial foray into the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship.
As all of us involved in this sport are only too aware, there are no easy rides. A new and inexperienced team is always going to face tough challenges, especially with a rookie driver who still had precious little prior experience from which to draw. Nevertheless, my lasting memories of that challenging season are of his awe-inspiring onboard videos of Michai’s Tony Kanaan-like charges through the field from lowly starting positions due to the inexperience and growing pains of the outmatched rookie team. Michai summed up the year in his usual humble and honest style. It was becoming clear to me there was much more to him than simply being naturally talented behind the wheel:
“Reflecting on the opportunity, it was an experience that tested me in more ways than from just the cockpit. Gathering experiential knowledge on every position within the team, the beauty and power of a helping hand, and constant push against adversity made for a year to remember. I also learned that when gifted an opportunity, it is up to you to make the absolute most of it regardless of the circumstances. Trying to hit a constant moving target is both exhausting and frustrating, yet so is the spirit of the sport we love. Motor racing is a constant battle between fiction and reality. It is the refining of limits, both physically and emotionally, which equates to an ever evolving, never ending pursuit of perfection.”
As Jeremy and I have seen all too often, Michai’s dream was derailed and his huge potential muted by what looked like a year of failure from the outside. But for those of us who believed in Michai, we saw him growing into something far more special than just another young, selfish aspiring racing driver. He had a sense of purpose and compassion that translated into a strong desire to share his passion for the sport with others.
Fate seems to be a constant companion in Michai’s relatively young life, so he soon became involved in the early days of Rod Reid’s NXG Next Gen Racers program. In his own words, Michai shares some of his proudest achievements to date:
“My involvement with NXG stems from an introduction to Rod Reid via Major Kelly C. Jones from RaceCraft1 Simulation Training during my first year of racing with the Skip Barber Racing School in 2014. While training with Major Jones, our relationship found synergy in desire, passion, race and natural ability. Furthermore, Major Jones sought to introduce me to people of diversity in the industry and beyond. Thus, an introduction to Rod Reid felt appropriate as much as it did necessary
“Rod and I clicked immediately, prompting an invitation to his home for dinner that evening. Walking into his basement, I noticed a picture of him and a Black race driver and then sitting next to that was a photo of him and a set of Black kids in go karts. To say that it was a match made in heaven would have been an understatement. I say this because I have been and will forever be an older brother who cherishes and loves the responsibilities of being a positive influence on a young person’s life.
“Within a week or two of meeting Rod, I was invited to work with him as the driver coach/mentor for the program and it didn’t take long to see the magic in the air. One of the things I liked most was introducing and or empowering a side of a child that they either didn’t know they had inside of them, or just needed an extra push. I say so because the utilization of the automobile or a kart is the perfect tool to evoke self-reflection. What we are talking about is a relationship with a non-discriminatory machine that is full of life lessons. Regardless of your make up, the only thing stopping someone from finding their moral code and values behind the wheel of a car or kart is money and resources.
“My time with NXG is special to me because it is exactly what I would be doing and then some if I only had my own resources to allow for a person to see their own reflection through the perspective of four tires and a steering wheel!”