AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
Former F1 pilot Scott Speed has four victories and a 50-point lead in the ARCA Series.
ARCA: Speed adds title chase to learning journey
JOLIET, Ill. -- A funny thing is happening on the way to Scott Speed's march to NASCAR: He's in the thick of an ARCA championship battle.
From Daytona to dirt tracks in Salem, Ind., to 1.5-mile speedways, the former Formula One driver and current stock car rookie is soaking up every experience with his Eddie Sharp Racing team in preparation for what at some point will almost certainly be a Sprint Cup opportunity with Red Bull Racing.
It's not much of a surprise that he's succeeding, with four wins and steady performances like a third-place finish this past weekend at Chicagoland Speedway in the No. 2 Toyota. Good drivers, the adage goes, can drive anything, and Speed is getting a renewed chance at age 25 to show his talent after an F1 stint with an inferior Toro Rosso team.
Speed's racing chops were honed through European Formula driving. He eventually worked his way up to a prized Formula One seat, but he failed to garner a single championship point in 28 races from 2006-07. He was replaced in July 2007 by Sebastian Vettel, a Red Bull development driver.
Fortunately Red Bull's stateside presence was growing in NASCAR, and the native Californian returned to the states and a stock-car shot with Eddie Sharp at Talladega two months after being released by Toro Rosso. He finished seventh and has been on a quest for learning ever since, a job that he insists is more important than results -- even a 50-point ARCA championship lead with four races remaining.
"Doesn't matter what we do in the championship. We win it or finish 10th, that matters not at all," Speed said. "What matters is how much I learn because when I get my shot at Cup, the more prepared I am, the better I'll do."
Such a cavalier approach to a title probably doesn't endear Speed to ARCA officials, though they're getting the benefit of a big name running a full schedule and using the series as a stepping-stone. Nine-time series champion Frank Kimmel has been one of Speed's biggest supporters, and he's seen countless drivers come through the series and treating it as a way station toward bigger things.
"With Speed, you don't judge the book by his cover. We all thought he might come in and be a snobby Formula One driver. That's been the farthest thing from the truth," Kimmel said. "He's a lot of fun to be around, I tell you."
His fashion sense is jarring in the buttoned-down garage area -- his colorful pedicures have become a conversation point, he showed up for a dirt-track race at DuQuoin, Ill., in camouflage overalls and a straw hat, and the cockeyed tilt of his Red Bull cap leans more toward rap music star than stock car driver.
Old-guard drivers like Kimmel can't much relate to that, but they have appreciated Speed's tendency to seek out advice. He's done it at ARCA and in limited racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, and he is putting everything to use -- in the Truck Series he won at Dover, Del., in May.
"Every weekend you learn something," Speed said. "Here, I learn probably the most about trying to pass lap traffic, how to negotiate [around] cars when they're off the pace, how to start on the outside with lap traffic on the bottom. You can't compare what I've grown up with to anything like this. Going around the outside of someone in a corner seemed crazy to me at the beginning of the year, now I'm figuring it out."
He's not afraid to be outspoken -- he called two eighth-place finishes on the ARCA dirt tracks "frustrating when you're having to run around dentists and doctors who shouldn't really be on a racetrack" -- nor afraid of failure. He swears he accomplished all his racing goals by simply making it to F1, even though he was unsuccessful after arrival, and that he's not consumed by a win-or-bust mentality in his stock car career.
That's obvious in how he claims to view the ARCA points race, which leaves some competitors puzzled.
"I don't really know what he thinks about the ARCA Series, but I think it would be pretty cool to win a championship," said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., second in points and closing the gap lately with two seconds and a fifth in his past three starts for Roush Fenway Racing.
For Speed, it's more of a means to an end. He's doing a lot of things right already, and a title would mean he did them over an entire racing calendar. That's a learning experience, too.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.