EVANSTON, Ill. — A racing season — a short, full-throttle, no-holds-barred, unexpected, somewhat controllable ride to remember. With so many people, places and opportunities, it's a true challenge of self confidence and trust in others. My time with RJB Motorsports and the entire Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires in 2016 has opened my eyes and gifted me with my first proper professional season in motorsport. From the on-track battles both within and against our competitors to the off-track logistical dealings of a rookie team and driver trying to meets the demands of a seasoned veteran, to say I have learned a lot would be a gross understatement.
Rounds 10 and 11 of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda took us to the streets of Toronto, a 1.75-mile, 11-turn concrete jungle that kept your eyes wide open and breath short. Unfortunately, we missed the first session due to mechanical issues, so that put us behind a little compared to the opposition, but we bounced back well. The bumpy nature of the track and the unpredictability of every lap certainly kept me on my toes, but finishing the first race in 13th kept things positive, while Race Two brought us a ninth-place result — our best finish so far!
It was great to have my two younger brothers and two best friends from grade school there with me, so it was time to let loose a bit. We decided to zip down to Niagara Falls to view one of the seven wonders of the world — man, oh man, was it worth it! From there, we cruised back to our home sweet home. The funny thing was, in just 48 hours, my responsibilities as a young man and friend would reach new heights: My good friend James had honored me with the role of best man at his wedding! Well, thanks to racing, I had already held a microphone to my face a few times before and was ready to take on the challenge . . . But as we danced the night away, my mind and focus began to slowly shift to the coming weekend at Mid-Ohio.
Boom!! Rounds 12, 13 and 14 were here! Thanks to Steve Welk and Aaron Telitz I was able to arrive on time and in comfortable fashion (thanks for the ride, guys!). The longest weekend on the season's calendar was going to consume the team and I for the next 96 hours. Thursday's on-track progression was filled with many new things, including the arrival of Jake Eidson, who drove our team's second car and my own during the test sessions and was able to give us some valuable feedback. He didn't manage to go any quicker than me but his helpful opinion also allowed me to iron out a few thoughts of my own — thank you very much, Jake!!
The following evening I was honored to join Jeremy Shaw, his supporting cast and the 2016 Team USA Scholarship nominees for dinner and interviews. In true Team USA fashion, the Andersen Promotions tent was jamming with incredible people representing just about every facet of the racing industry! Having been through this process twice before, it was enlightening to finally get a taste of what it's like on the other side of the fence! Trust me, it's nerve-wracking for the candidates but a tremendous opportunity to learn.
|Stephens at Mid-Ohio|
The fast, flowing and technically demanding 2.258-mile 13-turn Mid-Ohio road course was a dramatic change from Toronto. Having refined my attention to detail, it was time to lay down some Team Cooper Tire rubber and let that Mazda power sing. Our weekend's race results included a 12th-place finish in Race One, a 14th-place in Race Two and a 13th-place finish in the finale, which might not sound great but we learned a ton — again — and I was able to turn pretty competitive lap times by the time it was over.
There was one final duty before we packed up and shipped out — it was time to tackle my stage fright on the Cooper stage with the help of Rob Howden. A vocally charged and excited Rob exceeded my expectations of his past and current knowledge on my racing journey (THANK YOU). It was fun catching up and reliving all the great people and opportunities that got me here. But the best part of all was closing out the weekend in front of my younger brothers, father and friends speaking about what I love!!
So that's all she wrote, folks. The cookie has crumbled and my RJB family won't be making the trip to California, so my participation in the final round of the USF2000 series at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca hangs in the balance. My current hope is to do all that I can to be a part of the action — or at least watch. My ride with RJB Motorsports has been a cherished adventure from start to finish. It goes without saying just how grateful I am to Fred Edwards, Ryan Barth and the team for sticking with me through it all. I would also like to express my deepest appreciation to everyone within the paddock for the tremendous support and fantastic competition.
The next few weeks will consist of making advancements towards next year and reconnecting with the kids of NXG at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This young group of boys and girls has helped keep me young and connected to our youth. With only three weekends left, it's sure to be a thriller! From there, I plan on continuing my work with Xtreme Experience, Skip Barber Racing School, RaceCraft1 Motorsports training and the Team USA Scholarship.
As I look to continue my connection with the world of motorsport and all that comes with it, I can officially claim my addiction to its thrill of a lifetime!!
I can't thank all of you enough for helping me to live out my dream . . .