On race days the alarm clock buzzed at 2 a.m. That's when 11-year-old Scott Speed would rise from bed in Manteca, Calif., and tiptoe down to the family room. He would turn on the TV, flip to ESPN and watch mesmerized as Formula One race cars hummed around winding road courses in live telecasts from faraway lands.
"Ever since I can remember, I've wanted to be a Formula One driver," says Speed, now 22. "I saw a few NASCAR races growing up, and I thought it was boring, just watching them go in circles. F/1 is the best racing in the world, and that's where I want to be."
Next year, if all goes according to plan, Speed will become the first U.S. driver to compete in F/1 since Michael Andretti ran a limited schedule--with dismal results--in 1993. At week's end Speed (yes, that is the family name) was in second place, nine points behind Finland's Heikki Kovalainen, in the Grand Prix 2 Series point standings. The Formula One equivalent of NASCAR's Busch Series, GP2 was created specifically to develop F/1 drivers and holds its events on the same road courses that the top circuit visits. Speed, the poster boy for the Red Bull Driver Search (a program sponsored by the energy drink company in the hope of returning an American presence to F/1), has seen his reputation grow with each race, and he's almost certain to land a ride with the newly formed Red Bull Jaguar F/1 team in 2006. "He has demonstrated that he's not just Speed by name, he's speed by nature," a clearly pleased Christian Horner, Red Bull's F/1 team director, told the AP.
On March 25, Speed raised eyebrows--and further raised expectations--when he drove a Red Bull F/1 car in a test session at the Circuit de Catalunya, 15 miles outside of Barcelona. In his first outing behind the wheel of a Grand Prix machine, he turned in lap times that were two seconds faster than those of another Red Bull junior driver, Neel Jani of Switzerland, who has two seasons of F/1 testing experience. The Red Bull team leaders were impressed with Speed's quickness and also with his composure and his ability to communicate technical information to the crew, an essential skill for any driver.
"It's hard for an American to break through because the perception [among team owners and other drivers] in Europe is that Americans can't cut it on the F/1 circuit," says Mario Andretti (Michael's father), the 1978 world champion who is one of only two U.S. drivers to have won an F/1 title. (Phil Hill, who won in '61, is the other.) "Plus, the top American drivers in the past who could have flourished in F/1 didn't go because they felt their only opportunity was to race for a secondary team. But I think Scott and Red Bull can succeed if they stick with it."
Last year Speed firmed up his status as a rising open-wheel star on the other side of the pond when he became the first American to win two European titles in one season: the German Formula Renault championship and the Eurocup crown, two junior formula series. In all, he won 13 races--more than any other driver in Europe who was racing F/1-style cars and was not named Michael Schumacher.
"There is no question that Scott has the potential to get to F/1," says Can Artam, who is from Turkey and also drives in GP2. "His strength is that he is a very good qualifier, which will serve him well in F/1. When he needs to lay down a fast lap, he usually does."
it's a warm May morning, and Speed is back at the Circuit de Catalunya, sitting in the Red Bull hauler in the infield. The day before he had again demonstrated his qualifying prowess, taking the pole for this afternoon's GP2 race. The green flag will drop in a few hours, but Speed is looking well down the road. "I've never met Michael Schumacher, but I can't wait to race against him someday," he says. "I've been preparing for that for almost my whole life."
Speed started racing at 10, running his first go-kart race on a track laid out in a parking lot in San Jose. He inherited his love of open-wheel cars from his father, Mike, an electrical engineer who is a four-time karting national champion. Mike frequently talked to his son about the beauty of F/1 race cars, describing how they were the most technologically advanced vehicles on the planet, and by the time Scott was 12, he was already mapping his route to the F/1 circuit. He won several national karting titles and, at 17, started driving open-wheel cars at the Jim Russell Racing School in Sonoma, Calif., and in Skip Barber's Dodge National Series.
His big break came in 2002 when Red Bull launched its Drivers Search program with the intention of developing the U.S.'s first F/1 champion since Mario Andretti. "Ever since Scott was 12, he'd tell the other kids at the races that he wanted to race Formula One," says Scott's mother, Julie. "They always laughed at him because all of them wanted to race in the United States. But once we heard about the [Red Bull] competition, we knew it was Scott's chance."
After nationwide scouting 13 racing prospects, including Speed, were brought into the program. In October '02 that group was flown by Red Bull to the Paul Ricard racing facility in southern France for a final three-day evaluation under the direction of former F/1 driver and Indianapolis 500 winner Danny Sullivan. The first time Sullivan saw Speed roar around the road course in a Formula Three car, he was amazed by the young driver's natural talent--the lines he took, his shifting skills, his braking technique. "The cars they were driving at Ricard weren't very good," says Sullivan. "In fact, they were falling apart. But Scott was the only one who didn't complain. And he was always the quickest."
After winning the driver search, Speed moved to Salzburg, Austria, to be near Red Bull's state-of-the-art athletic training center in Thalgau. Because drivers are subjected to gravitational forces up to five g's in the sharp corners of F/1 road courses, they must develop powerful upper bodies and strong neck muscles. To gain such strength, Speed works out as many as four hours a day at the training center. He also logs long hours on an F/1 simulation program on the television in the small three-room apartment that he shares with fellow Californian Colin Fleming, the 2003 winner of the Red Bull search, who races on the World Series by Renault, a European series a rung below GP2.
"All I do is race and think about racing," says Speed, sitting in his hauler in Barcelona, where in a few hours he'll finish third in his GP2 race. "I don't see why I won't be in F/1 starting next year. And by 2008 I think we can be very competitive. Who knows, maybe we could even win a championship."
That's a long shot, but for the first time in more than 10 years a U.S. driver is at least positioning himself to compete in the world's most popular racing series.