MRTI catches up with Michai Stephens ahead of season opener

Photo: RJB Motorsports
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This is a name you should know if you’re following North American open-wheel racing: two-time Team USA Scholarship recipient Michai Stephens.

Stephens filed his latest blog for the Team USA Scholarship website last week, and ahead of his debut season in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series with RJB Motorsports, he was also profiled in the latest Mazda Road to Indy “Meet the Driver” series.

That interview is below:

Growing up in Evanston, Ill., as the oldest of three boys, Michai Stephens never told his family of his desire to be a race car driver. But a Skip Barber shootout victory and two stints as a Team USA Scholarship winner put the 24-year-old on the fast track to a racing career. As a newcomer in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda driving for rookie team RJB Motorsports, Stephens is on his way to realizing his dream with the help of the Mazda Road to Indy.

What first got you interested in racing?

I remember riding a two-wheeler around when I was 2 years old pretending it was a race car! I played just about every stick-and-ball sport you can imagine, all the while keeping my desire to be a race car driver to myself. My family didn’t have any motorsports background.

I went to Arizona State University to get a degree in Industrial Design with the idea that I would go into automotive design. I had natural art ability and I thought if I could design a race car, I could ask to drive it on track for one day! But both of my great-grandparents passed away within a month of each other toward the end of the school year.

They were two of the most influential people in my life (my great-grandfather passed his art ability on to me) and when I was at home, I had the thought to research what it took to be a race car driver. I read that the Skip Barber Racing School had a shootout to earn a scholarship for people with no prior racing experience – all I had to do was take a three-day, then a two-day racing class. I’d been working in construction, so I had the money to pay for the school. I went to Sebring feeling as confident as I’ve ever felt in my life.

How did your racing career progress once you finished the Skip Barber class?

I ended up winning the scholarship to race in the Skip Barber Summer Series in 2014. Early that year, I heard about the Team USA Scholarship, which sends two drivers to England for Formula Ford racing. I met with Jeremy Shaw and he invited me to the shootout which was the following week in Fontana. With all the guys that were there, I couldn’t believe he chose me to go with Aaron Telitz to England! There were crazy highs and crazy lows, but it was an amazing experience – and I finished third in the Walter Hayes Trophy at Silverstone.

When I got home, it was time for the year-end Skip Barber Shootout, for a scholarship into the 2015 USF2000 series. I won the Shootout on total points, but there was a dropped race so I ended up losing by less than two points. That put me back at Square One, but I did everything I could to keep at it. I taught at Skip Barber to make ends meet and went to races when I could.

Then I was invited to try out for Team USA again and I won, joining Dakota Dickerson in England. I had two podium finishes at the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch and was seventh in the final race – which was probably the craziest race I’ve been in! I finished second in the heat race at Silverstone but had car-to-car contact in the semi-final, which ripped the steering wheel out of my hand and broke my thumb. I was nominated for the Mazda Road to 24 Shootout but had to miss it because of my thumb. But as I was headed out of the doctor’s office after surgery, I received a phone call from Fred Edwards at RJB Motorsports asking if I wanted to run USF2000 in 2016. I almost dropped the phone – and now I’m here.

Being one of only five two-time Team USA Scholarship winners has to be especially gratifying.

It’s so competitive in the Mazda Road to Indy now and there are so many opportunities that come from it, so any advantage you can get means a great deal. My time in England felt more like a year than just a month. I learned so much.

What got you interested in the Mazda Road to Indy and the USF2000 series?

If there was no Mazda Road to Indy, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have had anywhere to go in 2015. It’s given me a connecting point and I’ve been able to meet so many people in the sport. To be able to ask of advice of a Mike Hull, or the Rahal guys, is so valuable. The scholarships are so important but what matters to me is the chance to grow up here and become an American open-wheel driver – someone who starts here and stays here, representing the United States.

What are your expectations for 2016?

I want to remain focused on what it’s going to take to have a long career in the sport, to put together the fundamental building blocks day in and day out. If we get the team rolling in the right direction, start rising up in the timing charts and are able to be fighting for podiums by the end of the season, that would be great.

What is your favorite racetrack and what is your best memory about that track?

I won my first-ever race at Mid-Ohio and then swept the weekend by passing near the finish on the outside. That really stands out!

What kind of activities do you do away from the race car?

Essentially, everything that I do has a racing tie. If I’m playing basketball, I’m trying to shoot with my left hand so that makes me a better race car driver. Or if I’m swimming, I try to breathe better. But spending time with my family is my main focus away from the race car.

If I wasn’t driving a race car, I’d be ______________________.

If I wasn’t racing I’d probably be working with kids in some way, in some sort of athletic environment.

Finally, where does the name Michai come from?

It’s from my Jewish roots, on my Mom’s side of the family, which includes my great-grandparents. My mom came up with my name. “Chai” means life in Hebrew and she added the “Mi” before it to make it a name.

SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”