He’s been away from NASCAR for a while, but Scott Speed is staying busy in the racing world. Busy winning championships.
This recent resurgence of success has come in the Red Bull Global Rallycross Series, an off-road / pavement racing series that includes high jumps and a young fan demographic in just its ninth season.
For Speed, the California native has found his niche, winning the last two championships for Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross and leading the points in 2017 with only three races remaining.
One aspect of GRC that is unique is the backgrounds of those who race. Speed fits in well in this regard, as he ran 118 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series from 2008 to 2013 after stints in the XFINITY and Camping World Truck series.
Going back even further, the 34-year-old moved to Europe at age 19 to pursue his passion of Formula 1, later joining the illustrious grid in 2006.
Frontstretch spoke with Speed to chat about his 2017 GRC season, thoughts on his early years in Europe and his success and struggles from Formula 1 to NASCAR.
Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch.com: This season in GRC, you’re once again at the top of the series going for another championship. The performance is there but how are you personally enjoying your time in the series?
Scott Speed: I love it. I’m fortunate enough to get to do what I love and I certainly don’t take that for granted at all. The cool thing about what I do now is — my stepson now is 15 and is a junior in high school and Rallycross is definitely the coolest type of racing you can do to that demographic of kids. It’s cool that something I do is cool for someone like him and his friends.
Catanzareti: It’s a pretty new motor sport but it meets that demographic well. After a few years being in it, where do you feel the health of the series is?
Speed: As you said, it’s a new motor sport, which is difficult for sure. It’s a motor sport that is most relevant for the youth whereas most racing in this country is to an older demographic. Rallycross is unique to how young their fans are. Therefore, it has a lot of value.
For me, it’s cool when I go to a restaurant and some kid sees me, 10 years old, and says ‘Hey Mr. Speed, can I get an autograph? I saw your Rallycross race, I loved it.’ When your fans are kids, it’s a cool atmosphere to be a part of.
Catanzareti: When you look at the drivers you’re racing in GRC, you have guys who have interesting racing backgrounds: Steve Arpin, Tanner Foust. Do you think that’s where you really jell with this series best?
Speed: Yeah, it’s a cool environment. The drivers get along great, there is a lot of culture, guys from all over the world racing. That is definitely a cool part of the championship.
Catanzareti: Apparently, Steve Arpin is looking at getting Tony Stewart into a GRC race. Tony said he is interested. What would you think about racing Tony again?
Speed: There are going to be lots of guys who make guest appearances, that’s how I got my start in it. I welcome anybody to come in and see it. I know all my friends in motor racing would love to do it and have tried. It’s cool to be a part of something that is wanted, high demand. I’ve got a great team, sponsor, manufacturer, Andretti, Volkswagen, and I am very thankful for that.
Catanzareti: Talking about your racing background. You started in Europe, moved out there at 19. It’s a necessity if you want to race in F1, being out in Europe. When you were so young, was it a tough decision to make?
Speed: When you make a huge change in your life, it’s very nerve-racking. For some reason, I was very comfortable going into the unknown. I wouldn’t leave the house with a backpack for a month and be fully confident that I wouldn’t survive. Everything has to be prepared perfectly and there are no risks.
I’ve always been confident that whatever situation I will be put into, I would sort it out. So, for me, at 19 years old, the opportunity to go to Europe was never a bad idea or a scary one. It was just a challenge.
Catanzareti: Did you feel like that experience early taught you how to work on your own?
Speed: I feel like moving to Europe and traveling the world from the ages of 19 to 27 were the most valuable life experiences I’ve ever had and the thing I’m most grateful for. To see all those different cultures, that was very helpful.
More than winning any race or championship, being able to travel the world and live in all these places has really been great in my development as a human. It has taught my girls and my family a lot, they are able to be exposed to a very big world. As a family, we can be very well-rounded to take the best from all these cultures.
Catanzareti: I spoke to Juan Pablo Montoya one time and I asked him about traveling. He told me that was just how life was for those years. Do you see it differently?
Speed: Maybe at the time you think at it as, ‘OK, this is the next racetrack.’ As a racing driver, you are ultra focused on the task at hand. You’re not necessarily thinking of ‘I’m in Monza, right next to Milan, one of the nicest parts of Italy. Or racing in Shanghai, China, look at all these interesting sights.’
Inherently, all those experiences still rub off on you and you still grow from them and take things from them.
Catanzareti: During this time, you made the natural progression up the ladder from Formula Renault, GP2, before you’re F1 debut in 2006. What are the differences in ladder systems from the U.S. to Europe?
Speed: You can’t really compare the two. There are so many differences. NASCAR is very much a national sport and F1 is very much a worldwide sport. Most importantly is the culture of the competition. In NASCAR, you’re going up against the best Americans in stock car racing, and the culture of that is very singular. Everyone who comes in there isn’t very diverse.
Whereas you go up the ranks of open wheel into F1, you’re racing against the best in the world. Brazilians, Europeans, all walks of life. The team next to you may not even speak your language, may be a French team, and next to them is an Italian team.
It’s certainly a lot easier for me being an American to come over here and feel at home in stock car racing.
Catanzareti: You raced against so many drivers in F1: Jenson Button, the Schumacher’s, Mark Webber. Did you have any favorites?
Speed: Not in particular. As a kid, I grew up in Austria, spent a lot of my time there. Naturally, I was close to guys like Sebastian Vettel, Heikki Kovalainen, Nice Rosberg, the kids who grew up in the same steps as me. Vitantonio Liuzzi, my teammate and Christian Klien were two of my best friends. We all shared through the same progression, same age.
Catanzareti: One thing that was big in your career was bringing America back in F1. You were the first since Michael Andretti and you’re the last full-time American to this day. What does it mean to you to look back at that?
Speed: There is no question that when I retire from motor racing — no matter what happens from here on out — still by far and away the most important achievement in my career will always be making it to Formula 1 as an American. Easily, no matter what. I could go back to race NASCAR and win three straight championships and it wouldn’t come close to what that accomplishment meant to me.
Catanzareti: 2008 came around and that was a massive year for you. Full-time ARCA, lots of Truck Series, your Truck win, first Cup starts. Was it difficult to focus on learning a stock car when you had so much going in and out?
Speed: No, it was very laid back, actually. Really, really laid back. I’ve gone from a place that is ultra, ultra cut throat to stock car racing that is much more laid back and friendly. I really embraced American lifestyle and racing, being low-stress, having fun racing cars for a living. There was never a point where I was overwhelmed or felt stressed in the same way I did overseas.
Catanzareti: Montoya did a very similar transition, went from F1 to race ARCA and then full-time Cup the very next year. Did you notice his move?
Speed: He did it right before I did, I guess. But really, for me being an American, it was just an easier choice to want to come back. Spending all those years in Europe, wanting to come back and race something here. That time, NASCAR was really the only thing I was interested in racing. Outside of racing Indy at the 500, there was never really anther form of motor racing I ever considered. Coming from F1 and jumping into an Indy car didn’t really make sense.
To me, NASCAR was a fun choice. It was something completely different from anything I had done and it was a natural progression.
Catanzareti: 2008, you became a NASCAR winner in the Trucks at Dover. Did that solidify what you hoped to prove to people in that first year?
Speed: Not really. To be honest with you, I never cared about what anyone thought about my NASCAR career. I was just having fun doing it. I didn’t come into here wanting to prove anything. It’s such a different culture, different sport. I never had the attitude to wanting to prove that an open wheel guy could come over here and be successful. I was just doing something to learn a new culture and a new sport.
Catanzareti: 2009, you were set with your first full Cup season. Obviously, it’s such a drastic change, so when it came to that first year, how was it for you?
Speed: The first season was really difficult, really difficult. I didn’t feel like I found my spot in stock car racing until my second year. My second year, we started out really well. I think after the first 10 races we were topo 10 in points or something. It was all going great until everything started — they took the wing off, put a spoiler on, and there were a bunch of changes that year. From that point on, we kind of went backwards and never had that success again.
Catanzareti: Some of your high points were in qualifying. You had four front-row starts. Maybe some people forget that. Were you always a hot-lap type of driver?
Speed: I’m not sure, I think dealing with a car — you had to conserve brakes because the technology of the braking system with the Cup car is not capable of handling the race load. Dealing with things fading and not being in the same equipment I was used to… I had to manage those things.
In a formula car, the brakes are made to work properly the whole race. In stock car racing, a lot of the technology is from the 80s, the brakes are far too small for the car and you have to be able to manage those things. It’s very Cole Trickle-esque from Days of Thunder, right? Just much different style of racing.
Catanzareti: Do you think you needed a full season of XFINITY or Trucks before moving to Cup? Did you feel rushed into it?
Speed: No, I think it was timing. The very first time I stepped into a Cup car — I did an open practice at Charlotte, I was second overall, first time sitting in one. In stock car racing, sometimes teams get it figured out and they’re good and sometimes they don’t. For us, we didn’t get it figured out until year No. 2. When we did that and the stuff changed, then we definitely didn’t have it figured out. That’s just part of the deal.
Catanzareti: Your main goal this year is in GRC of course but do you have any interests in returning to NASCAR someday?
Speed: Definitely not. For one, the seats that are available to guys that are bringing the checkbooks are being taken quickly. The reason why I decided to stop pursuing that is that there weren’t any seats available. That’s just a fact of the sport. It’s not as healthy as it was in 2006 and ’07 when teams could afford to hire the best driver they thought. Quality seats weren’t available.
I think being in a car capable of winning a race is at some point more important than anything. That’s something we have going very well with the Rallycross thing, I get into a car every weekend that is capable of winning.
No, I don’t think I have to go back to stock car racing.