NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers come in three basic flavors: You’ve got the good ol’ boys, who never met a piece of syntax they couldn’t mangle. You’ve got the corporate shills, who never met a product they couldn’t hawk. And then there’s Scott Speed, the open-wheel refugee with the name – and backstory – that’s almost too good to be true.
Last seen flaming out of Formula 1, Speed has reinvented himself as stock car racing’s unlikeliest phenomenon – a zanily cosmopolitan and preternaturally talented antidote to the bland PR-speak and retrograde culture that permeate stock car racing. Imprudently honest and incongruously fashion forward, he’s raced from success to success during his first forays not only on ovals but also in closed-wheel cars. He won his fourth race in an ARCA RE/MAX stock car and his sixth in a NASCAR Craftsman Truck. He’ll open the 2009 season in a Red Bull in the Daytona 500, and he’s already been anointed a favorite in the Sprint Cup’s Rookie of the Year chase.
“He’s the most talented guy I’ve had in my trucks,” says Doug Wolcott, the crew chief of Speed’s . “He has a certain feel that you see only once in a while. If he can keep his confidence up, there are no limitations on what he can accomplish in Cup. But if his confidence goes down . . . ” Wolcott smiles knowingly. Before becoming a crew chief, he was a top modified driver, so he knows the drill. “Confidence is all a driver has.”
NASCAR has been brutal to the highly pedigreed open-wheel racers who last year descended with great fanfare on the stock car world, only to be run out of town like Yankee carpetbaggers. F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve, 2007 Indianapolis 500 champ Dario Franchitti, former Champ Car stud A. J. Allmendinger, and one-time CART ace Patrick Carpentier were all dumped from their rides. Meanwhile, another Indy 500 winner, Sam Hornish, Jr., finished well back all season, and Colombian superstar Juan Pablo Montoya, who’s got Indy 500 and Monaco Grand Prix trophies on his mantel, rarely made it out of mid-pack. Yet Speed remains supremely, even serenely, confident in his abilities.
“You can’t drive in Formula 1 unless you’re really great,” he says. “Look at Marco Andretti, one of the best open-wheel racers in America. He went over there [to test] and was embarrassed, went home with his tail between his legs. The level of competition is amazing, and the cars are so demanding to drive fast that you just can’t fake it. Over here, if they’re both in decent cars, you really can’t see the difference between a guy who’s absolutely worthless and Kyle Busch.
“I’ve liked this a lot more than I thought I would,” he adds. “I had said for so long that I would never race in NASCAR. It looked stupid, and I thought it was a bunch of rednecks. But now that I’ve done it, I’ve realized that the racing is so addicting. My biggest problem is that you can’t be good at experience. And since the cars haven’t really changed and there’s so little engineering involved, the drivers’ input is very, very important to the setup of the cars. But getting in the car and going fast?” He shrugs. “These cars pull maybe two g’s in the corners, and an F1 car pulls four and a half. For me to feel the edge at two g’s is simple.”
Speed is stretched out on a white leather banquette in his pimped-out motorhome. As a longtime poster child for Red Bull, he’s never had to toe a corporate line or make nice with the media. If anything, he’s been encouraged to play the part of the rebel. And unlike other open-wheel racers who have tried to forge new careers in NASCAR, he’s made no effort to recast himself as a good ol’ boy. On the contrary, after winning his first Craftsman Truck race, he delighted the media by informing them that he’d recently gotten a pedicure – and had his toenails painted blue. In Kannapolis, North Carolina, Dale Earnhardt was no doubt spinning in his grave.
Being different is a plus when you’re representing Red Bull, which employs extreme athletes as its primary marketing tool. But renegades rarely thrive in the insular and highly regimented world of NASCAR, where teams line up in formation for the playing of the national anthem and even the smallest PR infractions result in fines and points penalties. Consider the cautionary tale of Tim Richmond, the flamboyant longhair – and inspiration for the Tom Cruise character in Days of Thunder – who was treated like a pariah by the NASCAR establishment in his heyday and shunned after contracting AIDS.
“As good as Scott is – and he’s very good – he’s still got a lot to learn,” says his ARCA crew chief Patrick Donahue, who crewed for Jeff Gordon during Gordon’s Winston Cup glory years. “The other challenge he’s going to face is making friends over there [in Cup]. Instead of being an oddity, he’s going to have to tone it down. Whether people want to believe it or not, it’s a clique – the owners, the crew chiefs, the drivers. They can make you, and they can break you. If he eats some humble pie or does his talking on the down low, he’ll be fine. If not, Tony Stewart is going to put him into the wall.”
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.
“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.
Speed’s best results in the overmatched Toro Rosso F1 car were a pair of ninth-place finishes. But he was as quick as his teammate (the best barometer of performance), was briefly fastest during practice in the rain at Monaco, then made a lightning start at the Nürburgring, only to hydroplane off the track. This led to an ugly confrontation with excitable team principal Franz Tost, and co-owner Gerhard Berger – who was already unhappy with Speed – used the incident as a pretext for canning him.
Speed says he’s proud of what he accomplished in F1, and he insists that he could have gotten another ride but declined because he was loyal to Red Bull. When Mateschitz asked him what he wanted to do next, NASCAR beckoned. “After Formula 1, what do you do?” Speed says. “To win in the IRL would have been meaningless to me. I’m doing this because it’s something new, and I really want to challenge myself. This is the best form of motor racing in the world. They do it right. They get the most fans in the seats. They put on the best show. Everybody makes money – good money. And because the cars are so equal, the driver means a lot more. All of a sudden, I can control more of the puzzle.”
Since Speed had no oval-track experience, Red Bull funded an ARCA program, the fourth rung on the stock-car ladder, with the top-tier Eddie Sharp Racing team. During his first tests, Speed repeatedly shattered track records. “He has more raw talent than anybody I’ve ever seen,” Eddie Sharp says. He progressed so quickly that Red Bull put together a midseason Craftsman Truck deal with Bill Davis Racing.
“At Bristol, he’d never seen the place,” says Slugger Labbe, the former Cup crew chief hired by Red Bull to serve as Speed’s mentor. “He qualified on the pole and finished third. That’s not supposed to happen. But for me, the high point of the season was Texas. He flew in [after qualifying], started dead last, and with ten laps to go, he was running fifth, learning the track during the race. I called Jay [Frye] and told him, ‘This kid’s got it.’ “For Speed, however, Michigan was the track where he felt he’d arrived in NASCAR, although for an entirely different reason – pink graffiti saying “Scott Speed is gay.” “If people are so passionate about you that they write bullshit about you in a bathroom stall, that’s f—ing perfect,” Speed says. “Keep talking. I think it’s funny as hell.”
Other than the yahoos gleefully looking forward to The Big One – the spectacular wreck that takes out a third of the field – nobody likes Talladega. For the drivers, running by themselves is stupid simple, and in traffic, it’s a crapshoot. For team owners and crew chiefs, Talladega means torn-up cars. But for Speed, it’s a chance to run a doubleheader in ARCA and in the Truck series.
The ARCA race turns out to be a dud. Speed blows a tire, smacks the wall, then soldiers around in a dismembered car to salvage points. In the Truck race, he runs up front early and gets shuffled to the back near the end. “I held him back too long,” crew chief Wolcott admits. “I told him to stay on the bottom, because I figured the guys up front would wreck. When he finally went high, he was able to go from twenty-third to fifteenth. I’m happy about that.”
Not Speed. He’s sweaty and flushed when he climbs out of his wrinkled car and marches back to his motorhome, annoyed by the superaggressiveness of the other drivers and frustrated that team orders – to run conservatively and log laps – prevented him from driving more assertively. But he’s remarkably clear-eyed and dispassionate about the challenges that await him.
“It’s easy to drive a Cup car fast,” he says. “It’s not easy to know what the car wants to set it up, and it’s certainly not easy to race, especially at the Cup level. There’s a lot going on that you can’t see from the outside, that I didn’t even know about until I started doing it. I’ve got a ton of respect for guys like Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, and Jeff Gordon. I mean, as an overall package, they’re amazing, and I’ll probably never be as good as them. But I could have zero success over here and it wouldn’t matter. After Formula 1, I have nothing left to prove. I just want to learn. There’s always someone out there who’s better than you. That’s something that eludes most race car drivers.”
Speed climbs into his motorhome and closes the door behind him. Next year, he’s going to have a harder time escaping scrutiny, and some of his comments – whether hopelessly honest, helplessly naive, or just plain goofy – are bound to get him into trouble. Fans, writers, and other drivers will have issues with him at one point or another, and somebody surely will put him into the wall, maybe even a couple of times. But don’t expect Speed to back down. And don’t expect him to quit. He may have traveled a different road to get here. But it wasn’t an easier road or a shorter road. And it just might lead him to NASCAR’s victory lane.
SCOTT SPEED STATS
Born January 24, 1983, in Manteca, California
1993 First karting race
1995 First karting national title
1996-2001 Multiple karting national titles
2001 Jim Russell Racing Championship, finished 1st overall
2002 Skip Barber National Championship, finished 3rd overall, Formula Mazda select races
2003 Red Bull American Formula 1 Driver Search, finished 1st overall, British Formula 3 select events
2004 Formula Renault 2000 Germany and 2000 Eurocup, finished 1st overall in both series, Tested with Red Bull Cheever IRL Racing team
2005 GP2 championship, finished 3rd overall, F1 testing with Red Bull Racing
2006 Formula 1 championship, finished 20th overall
2007 Formula 1 championship, finished 21st overall (did not run full season), First ARCA race
2008 ARCA RE/MAX Series, finished 5th overall, NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series partial season, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series select races