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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Sprint Cup’s Next Big Name – Scott Speed?

Scott Speed has certainly spent a large part of his life living up to his last name. After years of success in go karts and road racing culminated in a full-time ride in Formula 1, this California native appeared destined for the fast track of auto racing success.

But after a change in direction was made with his Toro Rosso program, Speed’s focus turned from open-wheel to stock cars – and it hasn’t taken him long to pick up the pace. He won in the Truck Series in just his sixth career start – taking the checkered flag at Dover – and a runner-up finish Saturday at Pocono gave him the lead in the ARCA Re/Max championship standings. At this point, it’s not a matter of if this talented 25-year-old can make it to the Cup Series… it’s a matter of when.

Last weekend, our rookie reporter Tony Lumbis sat down with this future Cup freshman for a very candid look at his career to date and his expectations for the future. This rising star shares his motives for coming to NASCAR, his thoughts on previous drivers who have made the jump to stock cars from the open wheel ranks, what it’s like to drive with a debilitating disease, and just when, exactly, we can expect to start seeing him on Frontstretch‘s Sprint Cup Rookie Report. As you’ll see below, this is one guy who’s not afraid to let the world know that he is coming… and you are among the first to hear it straight from the driver himself.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch: Let’s start from the beginning of your journey into NASCAR. You’re racing in F1 – the goal that you set for your entire racing career – and then you get the call that the team is changing directions. What goes through your mind?

Scott Speed: There was no call. That was a meeting with the owner of Red Bull where I received an apology for the bad situation we had in Formula 1. [I] was told that it had nothing to do with me [personally], and was asked what I wanted to do [next]. I said honestly, I was kind of thinking about NASCAR just because it’s so different and I know that I’m one of the best open wheel drivers in the world… I don’t need to prove that to myself anymore. They thought it was a really awesome idea, and got really excited about it. They had just started their NASCAR team here, and said go to America and make this happen – and here we are.

Lumbis: When you made your decision to come to NASCAR, did you consult with Juan Pablo Montoya – who had made the same jump – or was this strictly your own doing?

Speed: It was my own deal. I mean, it’s something that is a very big personal challenge. My whole life, I always wanted to go to Formula 1… as almost every racecar driver does. It is still the pinnacle of motorsports in the world. But having done it, it’s not something I would want to do for the rest of my life. I’m not saying that [NASCAR] is, but this is something that is a completely different form of racing, and I’m lucky enough to be 25 years old and able to say I’ve done [Formula 1].

[So, when I left Formula 1 I thought] what else would make me proud? Well, I don’t know about oval racing, I don’t know anything about NASCAR. Let’s see how successful I can be over here. It’s the biggest form of motor racing in America, why not see how successful I can be. That’s my only motive for doing this.

Lumbis: You said you don’t know anything about oval racing, but you’re on fire here in the ARCA series, and you have a win in the Craftsman Truck Series. Why do you adapt so well to the way these types of cars drive?

Speed: I don’t know… good advice and good direction, honestly. The cars are a piece of cake to drive; it took me almost no time to go fast. That’s dead easy. But you’re not going to go fast if your car isn’t set up right and you, as the driver, are the major factor for how the car is set up. So, learning to set the car up with how you want it to feel is a lot of [what you need to know]. The racing is completely different. Going around the outside is still difficult for me to do. It just doesn’t make sense. So, to get used to racing on ovals is something it takes the longest to learn.

I think Michigan has been my best race where I’ve really shown to myself that I can run and that I’m almost as good as the best guys in the Truck Series. I’m still definitely not at that level. Experience is very valuable in this sport, and that’s something you can’t buy or can’t learn. You just got to do it. That’s why we’re doing this and not going into Cup right now. I’m plenty capable of hopping into a Cup car right now, going out there and possibly running in the middle, possibly running in the top 15. I’m sure I’m able to do it, but I don’t have the experience – and you can’t buy it. So, I’d rather get my experience as much as possible outside of Cup before I get into it.

Lumbis: Did looking at the struggles of some of the other open wheelers who went right to Cup play into your decision to get more experience at the lower levels first?

Speed: No. I mean, if anyone could have done it, it’s Juan… and I think he did do it. Juan was fine and has been very successful I think, in my eyes, over here racing. Out of everyone who was in Formula 1 at the time, he was the one would could [successfully race in NASCAR]. He had oval experience here in America in CART, and he has amazing car control. He’s a naturally talented driver, and I respect him a lot. Honestly, Dario Franchitti, I would say that I rate him very very highly in my book as an open-wheel driver. He’s the only other person out there who has had success in Europe and had raced there. I would rate him much higher than any other open-wheel racer over here. I don’t understand why he has had the problems that he has experienced. The other guys, I mean, don’t even look at them.

Lumbis: In 2002, you were diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, a chronic disease where the large intestine becomes ulcerated and loses functionality. Racecars are hard enough to drive when you are 100% healthy; how did you manage to drive and be successful while battling the symptoms of this disease?

Speed: I don’t know. When I was wearing diapers and bleeding out my [butt] 50 times a day, I won the 2004 European Formula Renault championship. No other American has ever won a feeder series in Formula 1, period… ever. I was wearing diapers and was only 135 pounds, and it didn’t matter. When you get in the car and the adrenaline goes, the only thing that matters is what’s going on up here [in your head]. If you’re physically able to drive the car, it only matters what’s going on in your head. I tell you what, these things [ARCA cars] are about as unphysical to drive as driving down the highway. Piece of cake; especially from Formula 1, which is the most difficult. I could drive five of these races in a row without a problem.

Lumbis: These cars don’t have the degree of technology involved with them as do F1. Does that affect the type of feedback that you provide back to the crews?

Speed: It’s different. The feedback you give here makes a difference; the feedback you give in Formula 1 doesn’t because first, they pretty much know anyway. They can tell you whether the car is under-steering or over-steering before you even get back to the pits – they can see it in real time. Second, it works like this; there are 10 engineers who sat in a room coming up with a new front wing design, and they bring it to the next race and say that you’ll pick up 0.2% more front downforce. Then, they’re going to compensate for that by adding a wicker to the rear wing, and it’s going to get you a tenth and a half. Put all this (sic) on the car… and we went a tenth and a half quicker. It’s like, I’m glad you guys took my feedback which was “we need more grip.” You basically sit there and don’t do anything.

But, driving a Formula 1 car fast is something very few people can do. A lot of people can drive these [stock cars] fast. I think you can learn to drive this sort of speed with experience. You can see that – you see guys that are not exactly fit athletes driving fast. You can learn how to do this, but you can’t learn how to do that [drive Formula 1]. You have to the ability or not, and very few people do. You see a lot of guys do great at Champ Car or GP2 and they go to Formula 1 and just can’t do it. The G-forces and speed is too high. You’re pulling four and a half Gs, five on the brakes. Four and a half Gs going through the corners… laterally. To put the car on the limit with that amount of G-force at that speed is on a different planet as far as difficulty compared to this. This is honestly is dead easy to drive. It’s very predictable. But to be good at it, to be like Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson, dude, it’s also very special. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get there, but to get close, I don’t think I’ll have a problem.

Lumbis: Speaking of getting close, how soon will it be before we see you in Sprint Cup?

Speed: I don’t know… sooner rather than later.

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