Michai Stephens blog: The tail of the dragon

Michai Stephens blog: The tail of the dragon

SRO America

Michai Stephens blog: The tail of the dragon

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The JMF Motorsports/Conquest Racing West GT4 team visited the breathtaking Watkins Glen International for the fifth round of the SRO Sprint-X championship and our second stab at competition earlier this month. Having never visited The Glen, the team elected to run my co-driver Colin Mullan in Practice 1 and me in Practice 2. Each session was 45 minutes in length, giving Colin the opportunity to focus on car setup and me on learning a new track.

Strapped in and ready for action, the climbing Esses presented me with my first challenge. Soon after, the Bus Stop offered a minefield of curbing that seemed to require a compass and Mr. Columbus himself to successfully navigate! If done correctly, Sectors 2 and 3 turned your favorite orange Hot Wheels track from childhood into real life, with cornering forces that defied comprehension. Known to many as The Boot, my perspective prompted me to dub it “The tail of the dragon.” Having successfully made it across the dragon’s back, Turn 11 hosted the final challenge – The Wall. A squint of the eyes and puckering of the cheeks separated good from bad. With nearly 20 laps in the books, what struck me was the narrow separation between getting it all right and getting it all wrong. The Glen is different from anything else. It has street circuit type risk paired with road course speeds, making it a true test of will.

Qualifying the following morning proved to be another difficult challenge filled with mixed conditions, red flags and the influence of traffic, but it ended with me qualifying ninth for the first race and Colin unleashing his potential on a drying track to take P7 for Race 2.

The track was fully dry in time for the first race just a couple of hours later, and as the green flag flew I quickly found myself in the middle of a three-wide exchange heading into the first turn. Having slipped through and actually made up a couple of positions, I was heading into Turn 9 when our race engineer informed me that we had  to serve a drive-through penalty for a pre-grid infraction. That was disappointing, but as I dived into pitlane, I embraced the moment as I received the instruction to put my head down and bounce back. Cracking on from P29, I made it up to 17th before making our one and only scheduled pit stop for Colin to take over. He was released in P15, from where he continued our lofty charge into P12 by the finish.

We were initially placed third in the Silver class, although a post-race DQ for one of our competitors promoted us into P11 overall and second in class. It was a solid result under the circumstances, and after summarizing our efforts in a proper debrief, it was time for a night’s rest to digest everything that had happened and recharge the batteries.

As the foggy valleys of upstate New York cleared, Race 2 provided us with an opportunity to make up for our mistakes and harness our true potential. Colin masterfully managed some heated battles in the early stages and kept us within eyeshot of the top five. The pit stop window opened soon after a full-course caution, and so did a window of opportunity for me, as Colin pitted our Farrow Motorsport/Conquest Racing West AMG GT4 to initiate my turn to dance! We made a solid exchange which saw me clear the pit lane in sixth with about 25 minutes left in the race.

A charging Classic BMW quickly filled my mirrors, having made its pit stop one lap before us, and after trying to disrupt its momentum with a few defensive moves, I recognized it would be more productive to latch onto the back of it to help get myself up to speed. I learned later that the BMW was being driven by Stevan McAleer, who is hugely experienced as well as being an acknowledged expert at Watkins Glen. He proved to be a good benchmark, and after navigating a few on-track incidents and close calls, we soon found ourselves in a hunt for the lead. I was feeling good and the car was working well, so I began waiting for the right time to strike. Unfortunately, a late-race incident brought on a full-course caution and the race finished under yellow.

Still, crossing the line in second overall and second in Silver class was thrilling. It was a testament to the team’s ability to rebound from the earlier setbacks, and further quantify our progress. To be associated with this opportunity while in the presence of exceptional minds has crafted a learning environment like no other. Every member of our team shares an innate hunger to succeed and compete at the highest level. Yet what is most encouraging is our shared respect and understanding for the process. Mr. John Farrow has gifted us with a stage to perform on, and tools to further our craft. I cannot thank everyone who has been involved enough for their participation and support. As we head into Sebring, the bar will rise once again and our drive to reach it extends ever higher!

After an exciting weekend, one would think that the fun would stop there, but not for me. There was a final curveball still in play and waiting to be thrown across the plate. That pitch came at around 3:00 am as a pain began to form around my lower back. As the pain intensified, cold sweats quickly followed. Reflecting on a similar incident that had occurred nearly four years ago made my heart skip a beat. The realization that I was about to face the atomic kidney stone took all the wind right out of my sail! Thankfully, I was released after a handful of hours in the emergency room, and told to get comfortable with being uncomfortable for the next couple of days. Now happily staring down the road to recovery, I give many thanks to the timing and humbling of this event – it was a stark reminder that things can change in an instant.

The pursuit of excellence through setbacks and successes is never ending and nor should it be, for the day you stop learning is the day you’ve lost your passion.

Respectfully,
Michai

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