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Getting up to Speed

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.

Speed claims ambivalence to the criticism but said neither drivers' F1 aspirations can be met unless they do as he did: by moving to Europe away from North American open wheel racing and slowly advancing through the humbling F1 ladder series. Andretti tested a car for Honda last year in an opportunity set up by 2003 Indianapolis 500 champion Gil de Ferran -- then Honda's F1 sporting director -- and Rahal did a demonstration at an auto show.

"Marco Andretti went over there to Formula 1 and he embarrassed himself,'' Speed said. "Regardless of what he said in the media, he was over a second off. Gil set that up. Gil is an awesome guy -- I really gave him an honest chance -- but he really embarrassed himself, and he's one of the up-and-coming open wheel drivers in America. So until one of those guys, like a Marco, goes over there and goes through Formula Renault and GP2 and finds success over there in the European forms, it's not going to happen. Or if it does, he'll look silly.''

After spending so much time at such physical cost in becoming the first American since Andretti to compete in a Formula 1 race, Speed has resolved himself to a complete change. Steiner admits to being "quite surprised how positive Scott was from the very beginning of bringing it up.''

"I took a week or so, started playing golf, actually and tried to think about what I wanted,'' Speed recalled. "And I had a feeling that Red Bull would offer me whatever I wanted, and sure enough, when I met with [team owner Dietrich] Mateschitz, a couple weeks after the fallout, he apologized for the whole situation and he asked what I wanted to do. When I said 'to race stock car stuff', he was really excited about that.''

Speed said a complete switch in regimens was right for him because he had already reached the pinnacle of open wheel racing, albeit with a team that struggled mightily to compete against giants like Ferrari and McLaren, and helped produce just two ninth-place finishes in 28 starts.

"Any form of racing I do is a huge step down in professionalism and competition. Period,'' he said. "So if I went to the IRL, for example, I would have been going there to get a paycheck. I have nothing to prove. It's certainly not near as challenging, and if I win an IRL series I couldn't care less. It doesn't mean anything to me.

"For me, it's a big challenge to see if I can actually pull it off, if I can adapt my racing style to this. I'm 24 years old. I have plenty of time to make a solid career in motorsports with sports cars or whatever. I can go anywhere. So this is just a great chance. This is just a big challenge.''

The process will take another step forward on Friday when he attempts to qualify a truck for Morgan Dollar Motorsports. Progress can be expedited in moments in racing and Red Bull's decision to "temporarily'' replace one of its two Cup drivers -- struggling former Champ Car standout A.J. Allemendinger -- with veteran Mike Skinner underscores that Speed may be closer to his next big break than he assumes.

"We're not pushing too hard,'' Steiner said. "We'll see how he performs and then take the next step. No plan has been laid out.''

Speed was seventh in his ARCA debut last fall at Talladega, but lasted just 29 laps in the season opener at Daytona, finishing 39th for the strong Eddie Sharp Racing team. Though he stresses the ARCA series is "amateur racing'' in terms of what he's done before, he seems resigned to the process of beginning from the beginning again.

"I have no ego anymore as a racing driver,'' Speed said. "I made it to Formula One through a lot of luck and being in the right place at the right time, and that's humbled me a lot.

"I have nothing more to prove. So now I can think about it more logically. I don't care if people think I am good or not. I have no ego. I'm not looking for someone to tell me I'm an amazing race car driver. I'm over that step in my career. That is what has actually allowed me to have this thought. It wasn't like that when I was going up through Europe. I was always trying to prove myself. Every practice I was always pushing as hard as I could and not really thinking big picture. And the big picture is: you're here to try and learn as much as I can.''

He still may not fit in. But he likely won't care.

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