Speed on fast track to F1 career
California's Scott Speed is about to put a couple of new statistics in the Formula One history books.
When was the last time a driver from the United States took part in a Grand Prix weekend? And who was the last U.S. driver to participate in a United States Grand Prix?
The answers: Michael Andretti, who drove his McLaren Ford to third place in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on Sept. 12, 1993, and Eddie Cheever, who finished third in the Phoenix Grand Prix on June 4, 1989.
Red Bull Racing has nominated Speed as its third driver for the upcoming Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal (June 10-12) and the United States Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (June 17-19).
OK, Speed will be practicing and not racing. But this will mark the first time that an American driver has participated in a Grand Prix weekend in a dozen years.
"This is an incredible opportunity for me," said Speed. "Putting aside the fact that my second appearance at a Grand Prix will be in my homeland, it is really exciting to be driving an F1 car in front of a big crowd."
F1 rules permit teams that finished fifth or lower in the previous year's Constructors Championship to run a third driver and car in the two hour-long Friday practice sessions on each Grand Prix weekend.
"I have never driven at either Montreal or Indy, so it will be a good experience for me," Speed said. "I don't know what to expect, but I am there to do a job, so I don't feel any extra pressure at the thought of the media interest that might come with it."
So far this season, the Red Bull has alternated Christian Klien and Vitantonio Liuzzi in the race seat/third driver role. Liuzzi is standing down for the next couple of events, however, and Speed is being put to work.
Speed's job on the Fridays in Montreal and Indianapolis will be to assist Red Bull Cosworth drivers David Coulthard and Klien choose the best tires and dial in their cars for the qualifying and the race at each venue.
"For the weekend [in Montreal] and the next week in Indianapolis, we have decided to give Red Bull Junior driver Scott Speed a couple of outings in the third car on Friday morning, following a successful test at Silverstone this week and in Barcelona earlier in the year," said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. "These races coincide with a gap in his GP2 schedule. We will be watching his progress with interest. Scott is obviously the most promising talent to come out of the USA for some considerable time. His achievements in Europe have been extremely impressive."
Speed is currently competing in the new GP2 series, which runs in conjunction with the Grand Prix weekends in Europe. He has scored three podium finishes this season and is in second place in the championship.
GP2 cars are of identical dimensions to a F1 car but use a V8 engine with lower horsepower than the F1 V10s.
Born in San Jose, California on Jan. 24, 1983, Speed has long aspired to become the next U.S. driver to race in F1.
"I was influenced by my father," Speed said. "He was interested in F1 and watched it, and so that it what I wanted to do. As soon as I got into karting and started competing, it is my personality to be competitive, and I wanted to be the best at something. I was playing all kinds of sports as a kid, and racing was the only thing I was really good at, and so I stuck with that. I made my goal the top of that level, which is F1."
Speed is one of the leading stars of Red Bull's Driver Search program that seeks out and aids some of the best and quickest young American drivers on the path to F1.
In 2004, Speed became the first American driver to win a junior formula championship in Europe as he clinched both the German and Eurocup Formula Renault.
He has twice tested a F1 car for Red Bull once in Spain earlier this year and then again on June 3 at the Silverstone circuit in England. On both occasions he impressed the team with his lap times and technical feedback.
"A F1 car is completely different to anything else I have ever driven," Speed said, "so the more miles I can do, the better. My GP2 car is more similar to a Champ car, but I feel comfortable in the F1 car."
"F1 also involves a lot more technology, but I love that side of the sport," he added. "Ever since I was ten years old, I was looking at the data from my go-kart. The technology is probably one of the main reasons I was drawn to F1, apart from the fact it is clearly the pinnacle of the sport. There is so much data available, that there is always something to learn and that makes the job even more interesting."
Speed believes that interest in F1 in the U.S. is on the rise.
"It is a common misconception that people in America are not interested in F1," he said. "From my experience, everyone racing in the States would love to compete in F1. Interest in F1 in the States is definitely growing. But for an American, it can be an unattainable target. For a start, you have to move to Europe, which financially is almost impossible for most kids. It means you have to leave home and that requires a big sacrifice in terms of leaving your family behind. In my case, backing from Red Bull made it possible."
American drivers Phil Hill and Mario Andretti won the World Championships in 1961 and 1978 respectively. Speed or any other American hopeful isn't quite at that level yet. But, for the first time in a dozen years, an American driver will be in a F1 car and one step closer to that goal.
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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