STEPHENS: It can happen to you

STEPHENS: It can happen to you

SRO America

STEPHENS: It can happen to you

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On the morning of August 28, 2021, reality struck: the wait was over. It was time to honor the past five years of my life and those who have supported it by locking away the fears, pushing away the doubt and coming to grips with the present.

Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin’s famed Road America circuit, hosted the fourth round and mid-way point of the SRO Pirelli GT4 America SprintX championship, and with massive thanks to Mr. John Farrow, and assistance from fellow JMF Motorsport team members Danny Kok and Melanie Paterson in association with Conquest Racing West’s Eric Bachelart, I was beyond excited to be involved.

Dark skies and heavy rain meant that both practice sessions on Friday were held in the rain, but after receiving the instruction to suit up and climb aboard our Mercedes-AMG GT4, my beating heart and purring AMG 4.0-liter V8 biturbo battled for supremacy. Then came the words I had waited almost five years to hear: “You are clear to take the track.” And with a quick glance to my left-side mirror, I engaged the pit limiter, matted the throttle and dumped the clutch. Soon after, a massive grin and childish giggle filled the cockpit with love and gratitude for the moment. This was real!

Saturday morning presented a damp track in Q1, which called for a last-minute tire choice. We elected to run slicks, placing our focus towards the end of the session in anticipation of the track drying out. To help settle the nerves, I reverted to a recent memory at the Autobahn Country Club, where I had competed in a charity go-kart event on a damp track with slick tires.

Though concession karting and a Mercedes-AMG GT4 at Road America might not sound comparable, the mindset was. While karting, I remember forcing myself to try new things and to be OK with making mistakes. The goal in both scenarios was to identify the patterns of grip by testing new combinations lap after lap until eventually finding your way back to the racing line. At the checkered flag we were content to round out the top 10 – not a bad start for a field of 38 cars!

A couple hours later, I was strapped aboard again for the first of two one-hour races. With the call over the radio to “pack up and pair up”, my focus began to narrow. Yet again, it was time to live and let go, to free myself from all distractions outside of the task at hand. “Green, green, green!” Then it hit me. I had yet to take a single lap in dry conditions! I chuckled and uttered to myself, “whelp, there is no time like the present!”

The race went well. I made up a couple of positions at the start and, although my stint was interrupted by a full-course caution, I was holding down ninth when I received the call to “Pit-pit-pit.”

The pitstop and driver change added a really cool element to the race that highlighted the beauty of being on a team. My stage time was up, and now it was time to turn the spotlight onto my co-driver, Colin Mullan – who, coincidentally, is also a former Team USA Scholarship winner. Bouncing over the pit wall, I embraced the team as our second warrior hurled himself into battle. To go from participating to spectating in just a few seconds tickled me to death. We ended the day with a 12th place finish overall and fourth in the Silver class, which provided us with the information we needed to address the balance of the car for the following day.

Like clockwork, the morning sun brought both nerves and excitement as a fistful of changes had been made to the car overnight hoping for a better approach to race 2. Colin started the race and did a fantastic job keeping us in contention. After a brief caution period, the pit window opened up as I stepped atop the pitwall. A tap on the shoulder meant it was go time!

Watching our Farrow Mercedes-AMG GT4 crest the
hill into pit lane was insane. Colin shut the car off after hitting his marks, while I scurried around the back side with my booster seat in hand.

Locked in, the buzz down pit lane began. Pegged to the limiter and with the white line drawing nearer and nearer, my thumb snapped into action, launching myself into my childhood dream. I made up a few spots on the out-lap, which helped put us in contention for a decent result. But as luck would have it, two more full-course cautions, followed by a very strange restart, left us with only two flying laps in the race. Silence filled the airwaves when I received the checker.

Then to my surprise, I heard the radio light up and share that we had just made it onto the podium. I sat there in disbelief with the biggest grin and a sigh of relief. A third-place finish in class was a gift to the man who has invested the efforts of his life’s work into aspiring souls. To embrace Mr. Farrow after the race was a special moment that I will hold in my heart for many years to come, for without his passion for not only motorsport but for people, none of this would be possible.

There are few words to describe the level of gratitude I have for the people who have helped turn this vision into a reality. In 2021, I am thankful to report that I am now happily consumed by my passion from sun up till sundown, and it is all thanks to you! Motorsport and the dream of becoming a professional racing driver has forever changed my life. At times, I did not know when or even how the next step would come. But the tireless pursuit has taught me how to value the nuances of life and to take nothing for granted.

JMF Motorsports and Conquest Racing West’s opening round in Pirelli GT4 Sprint X was one to remember. It smacked us around, tickled our confidence, shared a heavy dose of humility and then rewarded us for staying true to the process. I cannot thank John Farrow, the JMF Motorsport team, Conquest Racing West and the SRO series enough for the precious opportunity.

With eyes set on the next round at Watkins Glen, Sep 17 -19, the team and I are excited to pick things up where we left off!

Respectfully,

Michai Stephens

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