Relaxing in his motorhome with his firesuit undone, the twenty-five-year-old Speed looks slight and vulnerable, and he sounds less like a trash-talking NFL wide receiver than a naive slacker with no clue about how the real world works. "I think I'm very, very mature in race car driving," he says, "but as a person, I'm still a kid. I have no responsibilities. I'm stubborn, and I've been very successful at what I do, so I don't have to listen to people. That gets me in trouble sometimes. But I've been lucky in two things. First, the important people who matter in my life have always liked me - and not a lot of people like me, because I rub them the wrong way. Second, when the time has come to perform, I've been f---ing fast."
Hey, it ain't cockiness if you can back it up. And time and time again, when Speed was tossed into the deep end, he kept his head above water despite the vitriolic European antagonism for American racers and a career-threatening case of ulcerative colitis. To be sure, he's benefited from the steadfast support and deep pockets of Red Bull. But he himself comes from humble roots in Northern California. He's never been surrounded by an entourage.
"He's going to have a lot of highs and lows," says Jay Frye, the Red Bull Racing general manager who made the call to fire Allmendinger and replace him with Speed. "But he's ready. The other drivers know about his experience in Formula 1, and I think he's earned their respect. They like how he's come into the sport, starting in ARCA and working his way up. I expect him to challenge for Rookie of the Year and run in the top twenty or twenty-five. History says he shouldn't run in the top ten. But he's exceeded expectations ever since he got here."
The ARCA garage at Talladega Superspeed-way is Sprint Cup minus both the money and the glamour. Grease under the fingernails. Color-coded T-shirts instead of spiffy, button-down crew uniforms. Drivers you've never heard of sponsored by car dealerships, construction companies, and products like Quality Turf and Boudreaux's Butt Paste.
When Speed arrives, ninety minutes before the first practice session of the second-to-last ARCA RE/MAX race of the season, he looks like an alien who's just parachuted in from Project Runway. Today's ensemble includes a white jacket with an offset zipper, a skateboard-style Red Bull hat, low-slung baggy jeans secured with a wide white belt, and gold Adidas Superstars. Tomorrow, it might be comically oversize rap-star sunglasses and stock car racing's one and only Louis Vuitton man bag.