Times have changed since Scott Speed last competed in a Formula One race on July 22, 2007. The European Grand Prix was at the Nurburgring, Twitter was in its infancy and George W. Bush was president of the United States.
Only two years removed from winning the Red Bull Driver Search for America’s next F-1 hopeful, the Red Bull-backed Scuderia Toro Rosso team fired Speed after 28 races. Speed was the first American to compete full time in F-1 since Michael Andretti in 1993 and the first American since Andretti to lose his seat midseason.
During his tenure with Toro Rosso, however, Speed showed flashes of brilliance — like a stirring drive from 18th to ninth in the 2007 Monaco Grand Prix aboard a car that had no business fighting among the top 10.
In another example of F-1’s cut-throat business, Speed lost his seat two months after his best race and only nine days after the Nurburgring. Toro Rosso replaced the American driver with an unproven, 20-year-old German named Sebastian Vettel.
The move left Andretti and Speed with an ironic thing in common: both drivers saw their seats taken by future world champions — Mika Hakkinen in Andretti’s case and Vettel in Speed’s.
In the 13-plus years since Speed’s axing, Alexander Rossi’s five-race stint with Manor in 2015 remains the only time an American has competed in Formula One. Speed — who turns 38 on Jan. 24 — is appropriately thankful for his time at the sport’s highest level.
“That whole part of my life is the part that I’m most proud of,” Speed said during a November interview with SPEED SPORT. “It’s hard to explain to people now, because I moved (from F-1-crazed Austria) to North Carolina and NASCAR country and the number of people there who can understand and appreciate what I did (in F-1) during my racing career, they’re few and far between. And, honestly, it’s not like I even care about that. I’ve always raced for my own sort of approval and for my own challenges, but that’s easily the most successful thing I’ve ever done and it’ll always be like that.
“I made the decision after that was all said and done, that I’m good with where I’m at as an open-wheel race car driver,” Speed continued. “Am I Lewis Hamilton? Definitely not, but I am one of the best in the world at this. The F-1 stuff and the success I had in Europe (two Formula Renault 2000 championships), that is the thing I’m most proud of. The second thing I’m proud of is that afterward, I didn’t stick in my comfort zone and go to IndyCar or DTM. I wasn’t scared to try something I wasn’t great at.”
Speed took his talents to NASCAR where the gear shift isn’t on the steering wheel, the paddock is called the garage and there’s no trophy for third place.
The Manteca, Calif., native experienced culture shock in his home country.
“NASCAR is super difficult to learn and it was way harder than I thought it would be,” Speed said. “I had to learn a whole new racing style and a completely different culture. There was just no common ground.”
Speed maintained a solid relationship with Red Bull, which in 2008 landed him rides in the ARCA Menards Series and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Speed nearly won the ARCA championship in his rookie season and he scored a Truck Series victory at Dover (Del.) Int’l Speedway in his sixth start.
Not bad for a NASCAR neophyte.
“In terms of experience, I went from Level 99 to Level 1. I was completely starting over,” Speed recalled. “You don’t get to spend your whole life doing one type of motor racing and then switch and be the best in the world at a different one. I wasn’t going to go in there and win a NASCAR title. My goal was to just get there, make it to the highest level and become competent at it.”
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