- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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IMOLA, Italy -- For the past three weeks, Americans have celebrated the success of our nation's athletes in the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens. Last Sunday in Imola, Italy, another young American athlete took a big step that could help thrust the United States back to prominence in international motorsport.
By clinching the Formula Renault 2000 Eurocup with a dominant victory at the Autodromo Enzo and Dino Ferrari, Scott Speed became the first American racer to win a full-season European junior formula championship. Thanks to solid backing from Red Bull Energy Drink, Speed is on track to become the first American driver to compete in Formula 1 since Michael Andretti's disastrous partial season with McLaren in 1993.
You have to go all the way back to 1978 to find an American World Champion, when Michael's father Mario Andretti joined Phil Hill (1961) as the only Yanks to win the F1 title.
Speed obviously has the perfect name for a racer, and he appears to have the talent and commitment as well. When he was just 4, he would hang out at racetracks with his father, Mike, and by 10 he was racing go-karts.
In 1997, Speed moved up to shifter karts, which ultimately produced seven national championships and the prize of a three-day stint at the ESPN Russell Racing School. By winning the invitational Russell Runoff, he graduated to a funded season in Formula Russell, and won the championship as a rookie.
That's when Red Bull stepped in. Back in 1994, one of the now ubiquitous Energy Drink maker's first marketing platforms was sponsorship of the Sauber Formula 1 team. That exposure expanded to other athletic sponsorships, all of which helped fuel the brand's explosive growth throughout the '90s.
Meanwhile, Formula 1 returned to America at a new Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2000 after a 10-year absence. Maria Jannace of Maxim Sports Management began looking for ways to put an American driver in the series, but in searching for the necessary corporate support, she was turned down by 57 American companies before Finnish racer Mika Salo introduced her to Red Bull head Dietrich Matescihtz.
The result? The Red Bull Driver Search, which launched in 2002 with the goal of finding and funding 'diamond in the rough' American racers through the European junior ranks.
Scouted by a team led by former Champ Car star Danny Sullivan, four drivers were sent to Europe in 2003, but only Speed was asked back. And for good reason. Taking a lateral step from British Formula 3 to the Formula Renault 2000 Eurocup, the 21-year-old from Manteca, Calif., has been nearly unbeatable in the second half of the 2004 campaign, notching five consecutive wins and eight overall. Speed also leads the German Formula Renault championship with four races remaining, and fellow American Red Bull Junior Team member Colin Fleming is second.
"It means a lot to come over here, represent America and do well," Speed said. "Racing has been my life since I was 11 years old and I've sacrificed a lot to be where I am. American racers don't get a lot of respect in Europe and it's nice to beat them at their own game on their own turf.
"In Europe, there aren't really any driving rules and I think that makes it a much more fair environment. Everyone in Europe works harder to be at the top, but this says that American drivers are just as good as everyone else."
Frankly, American racers have a bad reputation in Europe, somewhat unfairly fueled by the younger Andretti's disappointing F1 form after he was absolutely dominant in CART Champ Cars. Admittedly, the loss of Honda engines pitched McLaren into a bad stretch that took nearly five years to recover from. But Andretti's teammate, the late Ayrton Senna, still managed to win five races in 1993 driving the Ford-powered MP4-8.
Michael's best result was a third place in his final race, the Italian GP at Monza, by which time his fate was sealed and he was replaced by test driver Mika Hakkinen at the next event. Critics were scathing, focusing on Michael's refusal to move to Europe to be closer to the team and what was perceived as a lazy and poor attitude; no American has come close to landing an F1 drive in the ensuing decade.
Red Bull's program requires the drivers to relocate to Europe and immerse themselves in the culture. Speed and Fleming share an apartment in Fuschl am See, a lakeside village near Salzburg, Austria, and spend much of their time training in Red Bull's state-of-the-art athletic facilities. A third Red Bull sponsored American, Dominic Claessens, resides in Milan, while Matt Jaskol is racing in Formula Renault and Formula BMW in the United States.
"It's tough being away from friends and family, but this year of experience in Europe was much better than four years of high school," said Fleming, a 20-year old from North Hills, Calif.
Speed also had to battle some health issues this year. He was anemic and down to 57 kilograms before Dr. Christophe Gache identified an unusual type of colitis and successfully treated it with Pentasa. Speed now weighs 67 kg. He hopes to race next year in Formula Renault V6 or the relaunched Formula 2, which will replace Formula 3000 as F1's top feeder series.
"It's all up to Red Bull," he said. "I think if I keep doing my part and performing at a high level, then Formula 1 is looking good for 2006."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.