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Getting up to Speed

F1 vet Scott Speed throws hat into NASCAR ring

Posted: Wednesday March 5, 2008 5:42PM; Updated: Wednesday March 5, 2008 5:42PM
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Scott Speed will attempt to make his first start in a top-tier NASCAR series Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Scott Speed will attempt to make his first start in a top-tier NASCAR series Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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Scott Speed is too continental for an American, too American for Europeans.

A refugee of the uber-sophisticated Formula 1 series trying to regain his way, at age 25, in NASCAR's decidedly less sophisticated developmental circuits, Speed just doesn't quite fit. Not strolling pit road before ARCA qualifying at Daytona and likely not at Atlanta Motor Speedway before truck practice -- where Friday the California native will attempt to make his first start in a top-tier NASCAR series.

He has a watch guy in Switzerland and had a wardrobe from the boutiques, which is presumably where the blue pin-striped Oxford with little skull appliques came from. He's been painted as arrogant, aloof. Blunt, for certain. His white Red Bull hat is always askew above his massive bug-eyed sunglasses. He looks like Christian Bale starving himself to play John Lydon in a Sex Pistols movie.

"I've never been the type that wore slacks and a tucked-in polo at the racetrack, trying to look like a businessman when I'm a race car driver,'' Speed said. "It's ridiculous.''

But Speed is no cartoonish parody of racing ego, and his fortitude and persistence should not be underestimated. Despite his relatively young age, he's probably earned the right to be blunt. Speed reached a decidedly anti-American Formula 1 series by age 23 on merit. By age 24, he was fired. So he started over, and not with something familiar. Not fitting in, but making a go of it.

"He spends a lot of his time sticking out quite a bit,'' said Red Bull Racing technical director Guenther Steiner, who is overseeing Speed's transition from the team's F1 to NASCAR programs. "People will be saying, 'Who's this dude?' But he can race. He's not just here to be different.''

For now, Speed's patience seems to belie his demeanor. He speaks of humility and lessons learned after spending half his life fulfilling then losing a dream his father always thought was unrealistic.

"The question became: what do you achieve when you can't achieve what you really wanted,'' Mike Speed said.

Speed was 10 and starting on his father's path as a multi-time national karting champion when Michael Andretti's abortive Formula 1 career flamed out in 1993. After advancing through expensive American feeder series on performance-based scholarships, Speed moved to Europe to race after being selected in 2002 by the Red Bull F1 Driver Search, which attempts to identify and promote American racers.

Everything nearly came undone, however, when a case of severe ulcerative colitis -- presumably exacerbated by stress -- forced his father to bring him home to Manteca, Calif. But Speed returned to Europe a few months later to run the Formula Renault German and Eurocup series. His physical condition crashed in the spring of 2004, when doctors recommended a colostomy, which would have forced him, at 21, to utilize a container to capture. It would have also ended his career.

Anemic and emaciated, Speed spent more than a year wearing diapers until doctors found a drug to stabilize his condition, allowing him to win championships in the Renault and Eurocup series. He finished third in the GP2 series the next year after a rigorous offseason training program. He advanced to F1 as a test driver and later to a full ride when Red Bull bought the remnants of the Minardi team and made former driver Gerhard Berger a half-partner in the creation of Scuderia Toro Rosso.

But Speed, the first American to reach the series since Andretti, never earned a point in 28 races, finishing ninth twice while suffering through an acrimonious relationship with Berger. The Austrian businessman lambasted Speed through the media and used the driver's petulance with peers as a pretext for his forced release last July. Speed contends that was Berger's goal from the start.

"If it wasn't so ridiculously far from the truth, I'd probably be upset about it," Speed said. "But because no one else in Formula 1 believed any of the crap he was saying in the media, it was all right. I care what my peers think of me. If everyone in there thinks I'm an idiot and shouldn't be in there, I'm not going to feel good about it. But I know I have respect from my peers there and it was fine.''

Speed was also scrutinized by two young American IRL drivers with F1 pedigrees and aspirations: Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal. Andretti, 20, is Michael's son and the grandson of 1978 F1 champion Mario. Rahal, 19, is the son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, a three-time CART champion who was an executive with Jaguar.

"[Speed] could represent Americans better,'' Rahal said last spring.

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