The 28-year-old NASCAR driver has competed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in stock and Formula One cars, but took more spins around the storied track Thursday as part of a mandatory orientation session for rookies attempting to qualify for open-wheel racing's greatest event, the Indianapolis 500.
Speed grew up racing open-wheel cars, but with his ambitions focused on Europe and the priggish F1 series. He attained that goal by progressing through the European ladder series and emerging from a driver search sponsored by energy drink colossus Red Bull. But when his career stalled in 2007 and he was released by Scuderia Toro Rosso without earning a championship point in parts of two seasons, he used his Red Bull relationships to transition to a new challenge in NASCAR.
Speed was let go again last November to make room for Brian Vickers, who was returning from a series of medical issues. Unable to find another suitable ride, Speed filed a $6.5 million suit that's still being litigated. So he waited and took what he could, a two-race Nationwide Series deal with Kevin Harvick Inc. And then came a surprising -- and surprisingly ardent -- request from IndyCar team owner Jay Penske to race both in the Indianapolis 500 and the season-ender in Las Vegas.
NASCAR, Speed said, is where his ambition still lies because it represents the unproven challenge. But five months from becoming a first-time father, Speed now sees his career in finite terms. He says he won't race once his daughter is old enough to require his attention for her "activities" (his father made that same decision when Speed was about 10 years old). For now, though, he's focused on IndyCar, even as thoughts of NASCAR linger.
"I want to stay in NASCAR," said Speed, who had two top-10s and a career-best Cup points finish of 30th last season. "I want to keep pushing because I think I have a lot to prove there. I think certainly in my last year of racing the NASCAR stuff ... I really finally found my footing and I felt like I was at a really high level in that sport. It took me a couple years and it's a tough learning process. I don't want to just give up now. It just seems silly. I want to bide my time. I'm working on stuff for next year but it's one of those things where beggars can't be choosers and if an amazing opportunity comes along with IndyCar I'd be silly to turn that down."
So into the cockpit of a Dragon Racing IndyCar he went Thursday for just the second time. He tested the car earlier this week at Chicagoland Speedway.
After so much idle time, Speed suddenly found himself overbooked. He'll contest two Nationwide Series races for Harvick's team this season, Iowa (Aug. 7) and Montreal (Aug. 21) in his only definite NASCAR duty of the year. The team had also decided to enter him in the May 21 Iowa race, but that conflicted with Indianapolis 500 qualifying and Harvick agreed to release him after he got the call from Penske.
"I talked to Jay and he did a good job of selling me on it and how it was going to be a solid effort into it.," Speed said. "The one thing I did not want to do all year was get into something mediocre, and was this the first thing that came along. That's why I was out of a seat for most of the year."
Penske, the son of legendary IndyCar owner Roger Penske, told SI.com that he had briefly tried to get Speed interested in IndyCar in 2009 when he was in a partnership with Gil de Ferran's now-dormant team. "Once we realized that Scott was a possibility, we put all of our efforts behind securing Scott for the 500," Penske said.
Veteran Paul Tracy is scheduled to run five events for Dragon this season but will attempt to drive in the 500 for Dreyer & Reinbold.
Speed is likely to contest just two IndyCar races for Dragon this season but Penske told SI.com that he would like to bring both Speed and Tracy, 42, back in 2012 as full-timers.
"Quite simply, the best case would be having PT finish his career with us next year driving alongside Scott as teammates for the entire 2012 season," Penske said. "The pair would be unstoppable."
Speed is amenable to unstoppable. And full-time. And covering old ground, he said.
"Yes, absolutely," he said of whether he would consider a full-time Izod IndyCar Series career. "If one of those opportunities came up and things were right, it would be hard to turn something like that down. It's an extremely high-level series here in the States and it's what I grew up doing, but by the same token, being certainly as successful as I've been at open wheel, that's something I've already been-there, done-that. To go back to that has a lot more risk. It's a lot more ... it wouldn't be the same to go back and do well in IndyCar when I've already raced in Formula One, whereas going to NASCAR is one of those things where I started from scratch. It's like a whole different career. At this moment, I am certainly open to both ways."
So Speed also will continue to mine opportunities in NASCAR, where he managed just three top-10s in 76 Sprint Cup starts with a career-best finish of fifth at Talladega in 2009. He won and had four top-5s, nine top-10s and a pole in the Truck series in 2008, his transition season from Formula One, the same season he won four of 21 ARCA starts and finished fifth in points.
"I doubt very much I'll get an opportunity to race Cup next year, mainly from the fact I don't want to race it without the ability to win," he said. "That's the biggest thing I marked on my calendar this year. I don't want to race anything that can't win. Obviously, that's really hard to get into. Whatever happens, next year is going to be a major transition year for me and my career."
Win races, influence people
Jimmie Johnson received the most double-edged of compliments in a Forbes piece this week naming him the United States' most influential athlete:
"Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series champion every year since 2006, isn't particularly charismatic. But he's great at what he does."
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. (3) and Jeff Gordon (8) helped fill out the top 10. All of them were ranked higher than LeBron James by E-Poll Market Research, which quizzed 1,000 persons about athletes' notoriety and likability.
May has been a historically melancholy month for the Andretti family. American motorsports' royal family is a combined 1-for-64 in the Indianapolis 500, with Mario claiming his only victory in 1969.
Jarrett Andretti, son of former NASCAR driver and Indy 500 hopeful John, is too young to remember much of that, and began the month with a continued sense of optimism week by winning a 35-lap midget feature at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway.
The 18-year-old high school senior did not begin racing go-karts until midsummer last year, but advanced quickly to contest USAC midget races this year. He has a win and runner-up finish in two races this season.
Cornell's Formula SAE racing will serve as an associate sponsor for three Nationwide Series races with R3 Motorsports in an odd synthesis of theoretical and practical racing endeavors.
The Society of Automotive Engineers tasks university teams to design, market and race formula cars for a fictional marketplace, with judged and competitive events deciding the winner. Cornell will vie for its record 10th world championship this weekend at Michigan International Speedway with R3 as title sponsor.