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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: The Next Big Thing in NASCAR Might Not Be Who You Think It Is

This past weekend at Dover marked the ascendance of one of the hottest young drivers in NASCAR. Many had wondered if he could really get the job done, if all the hype that has surrounded this young man was well-deserved… or all for naught? But at the end of the weekend’s activities, one simple fact was proven true: Scott Speed is for real.

Wait… who?

While most of the talk in the garage this weekend at the Monster Mile centered around the NASCAR Nationwide Series debut of Joey Logano, former Formula 1 competitor Speed served notice that there was more than one budding young superstar who’s capable of getting the job done. Speed was only in his sixth start in NASCAR’s series that has served as both a seniors tour and a stepping stone for aspiring drivers, but the way he drove on Friday made it seem like he was cruising through start number 600. While winning the AAA Insurance 200 at Dover for this first career victory, Speed took the next step in a transition from budding international open-wheel driver to a bona fide winner in top-level NASCAR competition.

LUNKENHEIMER: TRACKING THE TRUCKS AFTER DOVER

Speed’s racing resume is certainly an interesting one. He originally was to be the first wheelman from the United States to compete in F1 after Red Bull’s American driver search in 2003 – the first such attempt to put an American in the series since Michael Andretti’s ill-fated effort with McLaren 10 years prior. In that case, McLaren was more interested in obtaining the then cut-rate services of Finland’s Mika Hakkinen, and wound up doing little to bolster support for the son of 1978 world champion (and 1967 Daytona 500 winner) Mario Andretti.

The same type of ignorance wound up happening to Speed, whose lack of support by his team was coupled by public comments questioning his will, desire, and even his talent. This culminated with team manager Franz Tost punching Speed in the back, then roughing him up a bit in the paddock area after an accident in a torrential downpour that involved five other cars at the Grand Prix of Germany in 2007.

While driving for the woefully ill-equipped Scuderia Toro Rosso team, Speed’s best finish in two seasons was a ninth-place run in both the 2007 Grand Prix of Monaco and the Australian Grand Prix in his rookie season of 2006. But while peddling Ferrari engines tied to tired-out Minardis around most of Europe for a couple of years, he did well to earn the respect and praises of Red Bull’s owner Dietrich Mateschitz. This would pay dividends down the road, as Mateschitz helped Speed find a ride in the United States after he was dispatched in favor of rookie Sebastian Vettel as the 2007 F1 season drew to a close. The move seemed to be made with extreme prejudice, and Vettel would go on to perform no better than Speed – proving that it was the equipment, not the driver, causing the problems within the team.

But while F1 is a young man’s sport – witness Michael Schumacher being ushered out at Ferrari after winning everything known to man – the life expectancy of a NASCAR competitor is one that approaches retirement age. Speed was positioned for a move to stock cars at just the right time, with the right sponsor in Red Bull that had the money to make it happen. That they climbed on board proved impressive in its own right, for it isn’t often that a driver wins the praises and laurels of their sponsor after the disaster that was his short-lived F1 stint. But after showing speed and promise in his first ARCA start at Talladega last season – where he qualified and finished seventh – it was deemed Speed was ready to move to the Truck Series, driving the No. 22 Toyota Tundras of Bill Davis Racing. In his first career start at Atlanta Motor Speedway, things got off to a tough beginning: he would qualify 28th and finish 27th in an uneventful debut. But in his next five races, Speed has finished out of the top 15 only once – at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, in part due to transmission failure – while picking up his surprising Dover win as a rookie. During that time, he also managed to score his first ARCA win in the Kansas Lottery $150 at Kansas this April.

So, what would make a burgeoning open-wheel star choose NASCAR? One would think that after a promising F1 career that aligned him with the backing of one of the most popular and profitable energy drinks on the planet, the next logical step for Speed would be to return to the U.S. and pursue open-wheel competition in the IRL. There would be no shame in that – consider former F1 champions Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell who made such a successful transition. To Speed, though, open-wheel racing outside of F1 would be nothing less than a demotion. As he recently told Ted West, “I spent several years making myself into a Formula 1 driver. Now, I’m making myself into a stock car driver.”

And what better canvas for a NASCAR team to start with than Speed? He’s a clean slate, a breath of fresh air with no preconceived notions of how a stock car should feel or handle. This is combined with a humbling experience in Europe that has left him with little sense of ego – just a burning desire to race, win and enjoy himself, all while not having to worry about the team manager challenging him to a MMA match in the garage area.

The correlation with Speed and mixed martial arts fighting from his past life is actually somewhat of an accurate one. Following Speed’s win at Dover, he revealed that he had actually painted his toenails prior to the event. But lest you think this is further evidence that Speed is an effeminate, foppish, Euro-racing transplant, think again; this practice is prescribed to by many a cage fighter. While they do it to guard their toenails from being ripped apart in the ring, Speed thought the move would actually give him a better feel for the throttle in the cockpit. Chuckle at Speed and his pedicure if you want, but do not question his intestinal fortitude… literally. Early on in his career, he was forced to drive while suffering from colitis.

Part of having a positive experience in Speed’s new career path is winning; that’s something that, in all honesty, was not going to happen in his previous line of work, especially with the cobbled concoction of Ferrari horsepower harnessed to the Amish hay wagon with a Minardi decal. But with an ARCA win and his recent Truck Series triumph, things are quickly looking up; so what might be next in line for the native of Manteca, Calif.? With his Red Bull connections and the season long struggles of AJ Allmendinger, many point to Speed to the heir apparent to the No. 84 Red Bull car; or, at the very least, a third team should they opt to expand their relatively small operation.

Maybe we’re all getting ahead of ourselves here after just one truck win that came from a two-tire pit stop. Then again, nobody gets to F1 just because they have the right name or prove a sponsor darling. Some may argue those two factors will go a long way in securing a ride in today’s NASCAR, and in Speed’s case, it helped open some doors once he returned to the United States. But he also happens to have one thing that money or a marketing campaign cannot buy: talent. Beyond that, he also has a genuine enthusiasm for what he’s doing; and finally, for the first time in a long time, he’s enjoying himself.

“The learning curve I’ve had has been amazing,” Speed said after collecting his first Truck Series win. Every time I go out on the track, I feel I come away with a lot of knowledge. I’m just having an awesome time trying to learn this sport.”

And that’s something that any team, sponsor or fan can get on board with.

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