"I go through phases," he says. "I'll go from punk-rockish to Gucci to real skate-boardy. I had my hair white at the beginning of the year. I embrace an image, make it my own, and when I get bored with it, I change it up. My hero is [fashion designer] Tom Ford. I don't have any heroes in racing. Honestly, racing's just not that complicated. People make drivers out to be so big, and the problem is, they start believing it. I'm riding the wave while it lasts. But it could all end tomorrow, and I'll be happy going back to life before all this."
Although Speed looks and sounds out of place at Talladega, he's been hanging around racetracks since he was four, when he started tagging along after his father, Mike, an engineer who was a three-time national karting champion. The young Speed ran his first race when he was eleven and quickly established himself as one of the country's premier kart drivers. There was no family fortune to fund his career, so Speed earned his first formula car experience by winning Skip Barber and Jim Russell scholarships. And then, providentially, he was selected to compete in the inaugural Red Bull Driver Search, which had been created to identify an American driver who would percolate up the European ranks until reaching Formula 1.
Speed was the fastest of the thirteen drivers invited to compete in the test at Paul Ricard raceway. After that, Red Bull dispatched him to England to race in the hypercompetitive British F3 series. Not only was he living alone for the first time in his life, but he contracted a painful case of ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease. Consistently outrun by his teammate, Speed suffered through a miserable season that prompted him to think about quitting - until a postseason test showed that the car he'd been driving all year was defective.
By this point, Speed had to wear a diaper to deal with fifty to sixty bowel movements a day. Worn down to 121 pounds, Speed was told that he needed a career-ending colostomy. But the top guys at Red Bull - racing manager Helmut Marko, himself a former F1 driver, and founder Dietrich Mateschitz, whom Speed knows well enough to call Didi - never gave up on the young American. They sent him to an Austrian physician, who prescribed new medication that got the disease under control. Speed rewarded Red Bull's faith in him by winning a pair of Formula Renault championships, then finished third to Nico Rosberg and Heikki Kovalainen in GP2. And in 2006, he became the first American in F1 since Michael Andretti.