Speed slowly, surely finding his way
The car comes to a grinding halt and the 3M pit crew pulls off four old tires and bolts on four new ones. The jack drops and Speed emerges from the car, throwing his arms skyward as he accepts a round of applause. A puff of purple feathers goes into the air.
Relax. None of this is happening at the racetrack. It's all part of an appearance at Victory Junction Gang Camp's weekly NASCARnival night. At least one driver and one crew visit every Tuesday, and this week the racer is Speed and the team is Biffle's No. 16 bunch. The applause for their cooperative pit stop comes from a group of chronically ill children and their families, framed by a backdrop of hot air balloons, live music and even a dunking booth.
As the 26-year-old racer walks over to sign autographs, the ease with which he does so would never let on that he's in the midst of the kind of stressful rookie season that would have already crushed the spirit of a less confident man. Watching his natural ability to mingle with the spectators certainly wouldn't tip anyone off that he's suffering from a sometimes crippling and mysterious medical condition. And his unassuming manner would never let on that just two years ago he was racing alongside Formula One royalty throughout the globe.
"Man," one 3M crewman says to another, clearly surprised. "I thought he was supposed to be an F1 jerk. But he's just a dude."
That he is. A California dude, to be exact, one who took the very non-F1 route to the world's most esteemed racing series, only to end up back in America to race, as they say in the Old Country, "saloon cars."
"I get it," Speed says, sitting barefoot at his dining room table, ogling a new tricked-out, remote-control, off-road truck that was just delivered to his modest home north of Charlotte. "All people really know about me is that I'm from Formula One and I dress kind of funny and I'd never sat in a stock car until 2007. I must be some rich, snobby a-hole, right? I'm not. I know it'll take some time to convince people that don't really know me. And they don't want to get to know me? Well, whatever."
Call it the Jean Girard Syndrome, as in the French F1 racer who showed up to ruin Ricky Bobby's party at The Pit Stop. But anyone who has ever bothered to spend a few minutes with Speed -- especially during guard-down moments, like when he's dancing alongside weak, sometimes-dying children at Victory Junction -- knows better. He's just another American kid, a Little League baseball vet who grew up rooting for Joe Montana's San Francisco 49ers.
Speed came up through the ultracompetitive, pay-your-own-way world of karting. He never once bought a ride because he couldn't afford to. Rather, he clawed his way up the open-wheel ladder by winning, usually in secondhand equipment. When his career seemed destined for a flameout, he caught a break from, of all things, a contest, catching the eyes of the European Formula set through the Red Bull Driver Search, a program designed to identify the first legit American-born Formula One prospect since, well, basically forever.
He landed a job as test driver for Red Bull's F1 team. Then, in 2006, he landed a ride with Toro Rosso, what amounted to essentially Red Bull's second team, becoming the first American-born F1 regular since 1993.
"If Americans knew the way that he was treated over there just because he's American, they would prop him up as a national hero," says Michael Andretti, who endured a disastrous one-year stint as teammate to living legend Ayrton Senna. "Drivers from the United States have always had a hard time in Formula One because there have always been a lot of people there that don't want them to succeed."
Making matters worse, Speed suffered from debilitating stomach cramps and an inability to control his digestive system. At first, doctors wrote it off to stress. Eventually, he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, or UC, a form of inflammatory bowel disease. However, instead of hiding his condition, he went public with it, hoping to help sufferers of a disease that's most damaging side effect is embarrassment. He jokes to let others know that it's OK to live with it.
"People ask me, 'What was it like to race at Monaco?' I tell them it was awesome, but you haven't really experienced it unless you've raced it while wearing a diaper."
Before the end of his second season in F1, Speed was released from Toro Rosso in a very public spat with team management, particularly driver-turned-exec Gerhard Berger. But team owner -- and Red Bull owner -- Dietrich Mateschitz remained so enamored with Speed's personality that he kept him on the payroll. When the billionaire asked Speed what he wanted to do next, the answer came back quickly.
People ask me, 'What was it like to race at Monaco?' I tell them it was awesome, but you haven't really experienced it unless you've raced it while wearing a diaper.” -- Scott Speed
"Not Indy, not sports cars, not any of the other crazy motorsports that Red Bull is involved in. Not yet anyway," Speed says. "I told him I wanted to come to NASCAR."
It just so happened that Mateschitz had recently gotten into the NASCAR team ownership business, and he immediately began prepping Speed to take over the No. 82 Red Bull Toyota as a teammate to Brian Vickers. After a controversial near-championship run in ARCA and a NASCAR Truck Series win at Dover (after which he shocked the media corps into silence by crediting a prerace manicure for the win), he slid into the Sprint Cup Series full time for 2009.
"It's been a challenge," he says with a laugh, knowing his assessment is a bit of an understatement. He's posted 15 finishes of 30th or worse and failed to qualify three times, all while teammate Vickers has posted a league-leading six poles and a win at Michigan. However, there has been some momentum of late, particularly at Bristol, where Speed qualified third and refused to fade, dodging multiple wrecks to finish 15th.
"This is such a totally different universe from Formula cars. I mean everything. Especially the way you communicate what your car is doing and how you fix it. We're just now getting to where we're speaking the same language. And we've changed the way we do things. Instead of just starting practice and saying, 'Well, what do we have and how are we going to fix it?' -- we're not just guessing and throwing stuff at it; we're coming into weekends with a plan. That's the difference between the great teams and ones that aren't. Them and us. Hell, you forget, but this team didn't even exist three years ago."
If he doesn't sound down in the mouth about sitting 35th in points or even about persistent questions surrounding his future with the team, it's because he's not. He truly believes the 82 Red Bull team has started to get its battleship turned around. Even if he didn't believe that, he'd still be in a good mood. He's a newlywed, recently married to Amanda Mathis, daughter of NHRA Pro Stock legend Ricky Smith and sister of current Pro Stock Motorcycle ace Matt Smith. "I'm already bugging my in-laws about getting a bike ready for me for after NASCAR," he says with a wink to Amanda. "Drag racing? Why not?"
This year, he also accepted the role of national spokesperson for the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA), spearheading fundraising efforts by donating time for a national walk program and meeting with fellow UC sufferers whenever he has the chance, from the racetrack to Victory Junction Gang Camp.
"People with UC tend to be more embarrassed than anything else. And a lot of doctors make it worse by getting them all confused with talk about drugs and treatments. I have totally controlled my condition through diet and exercise. People need to know that you can live with [it] and do whatever you want to. Kids like those campers are the ones who really need to hear it." In the meantime, life is good. He's winning fans over, slowly but surely. He's building a new house closer to his drag racing in-laws in King, N.C. He plays golf, rides his bikes and races his RC cars every Wednesday night alongside his best garage buddy wait for it Kyle Busch.
"Kyle and I have a good time. We're Team B.S. [presumably for Busch and Speed] and we just picked up Waste Management for a sponsor. Seriously. During weekends we dress up in disguises and do scavenger hunts in the infield. He's really a good guy. He's just figuring some things out. He's definitely not who everyone thinks he is."
To that, his wife quickly interjects, "Yeah, and neither are you."
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.