PFANNER: The one I have been waiting for

PFANNER: The one I have been waiting for

Insights & Analysis

PFANNER: The one I have been waiting for

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We now find ourselves on the cusp of a societal and sporting restart not seen since the end of World War II. Opportunity is everywhere for our sport to lead the way to a better future, and I commend Rod Reid and Roger Penske for recently uniting to make the NXG program central to the future vision of the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires and the NTT IndyCar Series.

As my friend and mentor Mike Hull once said to me during my early days as an aspiring Formula Ford racer: “racing is truth”. And the truth is that Michai Stephens embodies everything that the NXG initiative and the Team USA Scholarship stand for. The cruel irony is that Michai is now likely to be deemed too old to be eligible to benefit from the recent Force Indy Road to Indy team announcement, despite his long service to the NXG program. Nevertheless, fate rides with Michai, and I believe his story is far from over.

Michai Stephens was born in January 1992, which also happens to be when RACER’s initial launch marketing campaign took place. Our journey to now is forever intertwined, and I will always believe in Michai and his potential to change our sport for the better. Michai deserves more than being a minor footnote to the rich history of the Indianapolis 500 and the NTT IndyCar Series. I believe that Michai has the power within him to make history and drive positive change in the sport he loves. He has earned the respect of many whom I look up to, and he has also earned the opportunity to prove his worth behind the wheel as part of a proper racing team. My hope in writing this column is that someone will realize the immediate opportunity Michai represents for any racing series, race team, manufacturer or sponsor to tell a story of inclusion and merit-based opportunity that leads to achievement both on and off the racetrack. I am not alone in believing this, so here is what some of those who see his potential have to say:

Mike Hull, Managing Director, Chip Ganassi Racing: “To view untapped, raw and instinctive talent is what motivates me to continue to be in motorsports. We’re lucky to see it up close. Michai Stephens has been a great reminder of that opportunity since our first meeting. A race driver’s ascent is about the timing of the talent matching up with the alignment of the opportunities from great owners and partners. Patience is the denominator. Seldom does it fall into place without a village effort for a person with the combination of such a skill set who appreciates the process like Michai does.”

T.E. McHale, recently-retired Manager of Motorsports PR, American Honda: “I have had the singular pleasure of getting to know Michai outside the cockpit, and I have rarely, if ever, encountered anyone as personable, articulate, self-possessed and appreciative, with a level of maturity that puts me – a 67-year-old man – and many of my contemporaries to shame. More than once, Michai has been described to me as ‘a sponsor’s dream.’ Especially now, the sport needs more of him, and in a visible, prominent role.”

Stephens ran a part-time USF2000 campaign in 2016. Image by Road to Indy

Three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti: “I first met Michai in 2014 when he was on his first USA Scholarship adventure. Living back in the UK, Brands Hatch and Silverstone are now a short drive away, and I love to go to both and watch the Formula Ford Festival and Walter Hayes Trophy where the racing is second to none and the competition fierce. Michai handled himself incredibly well on track despite his lack of experience, but I was equally impressed with him off track. We struck up a quick friendship – he reminds me of my old pal Tony Kanaan, both with an uncanny physical resemblance, but also in his fun and engaging personality and his determination to succeed against the odds. Michai’s tale is all too familiar in racing – talented kid doesn’t get the chance due to a lack of funds – but when you understand the obstacles that he has overcome to get this far, it tells a much deeper story. I’d love to see him get the chance that he deserves to climb the motor racing ladder.

Team USA Scholarship founder Jeremy Shaw: “I have been fortunate enough to watch many young drivers make their first tentative steps into the world of auto racing. It’s one aspect that truly inspires me. I saw such giants as Ayrton Senna. Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost at a very early stage in their careers, and I have to tell you that in terms of natural ability, Michai is right up there with any of them. He has all the right attributes. He’s the optimal size and weight, he works hard and he wants to learn. All he needs is opportunity. Now, whether he is able to fulfill his potential is always open to conjecture, but I can honestly tell you that if I had the financial wherewithal, I would have no hesitation in placing it in Michai’s hands.”

I agree with Jeremy, and as implied in the headline for this column, Michai is the one I have been waiting for in terms of sheer raw talent. More importantly, Michai is the one we have all been waiting for in terms of the passion, character and humility needed to help take our sport to another level of inclusion, growth and prosperity. I believe that racing is much more than a sports entertainment business. Racing is an inspiration business, and it is powered by truth. The truth is that Michai Stephens inspires me because he has grown as a racer and a man to become the opportunity of a lifetime for all of us who love this sport.

Follow Michai Stephens’ improbable journey through the sport via his website.

It is also important to thank Anthony and Dan DeMonte, who are the passionate current owners of the Skip Barber Racing School for extending the offer of SBRS scholarships to Rod Reid’s amazing NXG Youth Motorsports Program. I want to also remind our readers that the NXG website has a link for donations to help accelerate this wonderful initiative. I also suggest that you learn more about Jeremy Shaw’s Team USA Scholarship program that can always benefit from additional support to help young American racers live their dreams and fulfill their full potential.

One final thought: Let’s hope that the leadership team at the NTT IndyCar Series and the Skip Barber Racing School can work together soon to create an updated version of the Skip Barber IndyCar Academy that embraces both the physical and virtual realms of motorsport to provide opportunity to the countless thousands who dream of racing but would never have an opportunity to prove their ability without this merit-based opportunity platform.

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