What’s in a name? When you’re Scott Speed it means you’re destined to spend most of your life going fast and his resume shows it, but the road hasn’t been easy. It takes a lot more than being fast to be a successful racing driver. That’s just the start. Speed spent the better part of his childhood dominating the karting scene before switching to open-wheel in 2001 and won the Red Bull Driver Search a year later. That provided the opportunity to compete in British Formula Three, then winning the German Formula Renault and Eurocup championships.
Speed’s hard work and ambition paid off as he reached the highest echelon of motorsports with the Scuderia Toro Rosso Formula 1 team. As fate would have it, the California-native’s tenure there was brief. Although Speed was down he certainly wasn’t out.
By 2008 he was back in the USA and carving out a name for himself in the ARCA series. He earned ‘Rookie of the Year’ and the championship in the same year. His upwards trajectory continued for the next few years, through NASCAR’s Trucks, Nationwide, and Sprint Cup series. After reaching the pinnacle of open-wheel racing, he was now competing at the top of stock car racing’s heap.
That’s when he accepted an invitation to compete in the Global Rallycross season opener at X Games Brazil 2013. The final race was a thriller from start to finish. When the dust cleared (literally), Scott Speed took the gold medal and the rest as they say is history.
This coming weekend, he starts his second full season with Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross in Ft. Lauderdale driving the highly anticipated #41 Volkswagen Beetle GRC car. Speed also represents the Andretti team in the FIA’s fledgling fully electric, open-wheel Formula E series. We chatted with him recently about the upcoming season among other things. He was refreshingly devoid of the PR spiel we often see with racing drivers nowadays. Then again Scott Speed’s earned the right to speak his mind freely and we couldn’t ask for more.
MLAS: No offense but when people said your name is Scott Speed it almost sounds like you changed your last name to that.
SS: Ha! No, no, no, no, I was very lucky that I was born with it; but I could tell you as a kid growing up in school it wasn’t so fun, ‘cause everyone you know cause I wasn’t so fast running in track and all the sports? You know I was just of average speed and you know I’d always get jokes but now that I’m a racing driver it turned out to be quite a blessing.
MLAS: That must make reunions so good for you!
SS: Well I’ve not been to a reunion but it would be very nice for me. I would very much enjoy a reunion at my old high school! (laughing)
MLAS: Do you come for a family of racers? Was the racing bug hereditary for you?
SS: A bit yeah, my father raced go karts before me and I started racing when I was ten and by the time I was eleven, I required so much attention from my father that he had to stop racing and he you know, devoted his time to helping me. And certainly without that help from my Dad you know for sure I would not have made it to where I am today.
MLAS: I know that you’re a Dad yourself. Are your kids into it?
SS: Yeah, I mean yeah they know racing for sure. They go to all the races and they follow it. I hope that they…it would be very interesting to see want they do with their lives. It would be a very exciting time.
MLAS: As we were talking about the natural talent and proclivity for being a race car driver, but from what I know of everybody who races are also highly, highly, highly competitive in everything.
SS: Yes that, you can check that box! I pass the competitive one with flying colors. I’m the most competitive person I know. (laughs)
MLAS: Your teammate Tanner Foust also has a reputation for being an extremely competitive guy.
SS: Ah, yeah.
MLAS: Solidarity is important but there’s only enough room for one person on a podium’s top step so when does it becomes “every man for himself” and do guys have some kind of arrangement?
SS: Oh it’s always “every man for himself.” It’s always like that for everybody. I don’t know anyone who’s not “every man for himself.”
MLAS: So I guess team orders are something that nobody’s going to ascribe…
SS: No, no, no, never and besides I’ve never had any type of team orders or anything like that. It’s always “every man for himself” and there’s also a certain amount of respect between us. So I mean we’d never do anything to hurt the other one but we’re still very much out for ourselves.
MLAS: That’s understandable and again it is a race.
SS: It is a race. (chuckles)
MLAS: If we could go back a little it, that was one heck of a GRC debut in X Games Brazil. A lot of big names wiped out but you, a first-timer, won the gold. Was there a moment when you knew in your bones that you were going to win?
Scott Speed: Well to be fair, all the guys that wiped out in that race were slow anyway (chuckles) because they all crashed at the back of the pack at the start of the race. But the guys that were fast were Liam and Topi Heikkinen; and from about the third practice on before we got into qualifying, I must have felt we had a good chance because we were really fast, and if we could qualify well and start in the front of the pack we could avoid the crashes and essentially that’s what we did. And when Liam Doran wrecked in his heat race I knew that if I just stayed clean I could knock it out of the pole starting position for the semi-final and the final, and that would give us a pretty big advantage for the race. So as it turned out that’s kind of exactly what happened and then things went according to Plan A we’ll say. (lightly laughs)
MLAS: Three guys got their first rallycross medals then, you, Sandell and Topi Heikkinen. It was quite a “Hey look at me!” moment for you.
SS: Yeah, yeah! It served me in a very good way to start my rallycross career.
MLAS: Your career has taken an interesting path: karting to Formula Renault 2000 to Formula 1 to NASCAR to Red Bull Global Rallycross and now FIA Formula E. Phew!
SS: Yeah, lots of races
MLAS: How does it feel to be racing in an open-wheel car again?
SS: It’s a familiar feeling. It’s certainly sort of nostalgic because obviously I got my career started doing that, so it’s kind of a nostalgic feeling, go back and see some of these familiar faces from my past.
MLAS: All racing is intense but GRC and Formula E are rather different beasts. It’s not like you can trade paint with an open-wheel car like you can with a rallycross car.
SS: It’s very different.
MLAS: Is it a challenge to switch between the series and how do you handle the differences?
SS: Well honestly I think it just comes naturally because you know, when you sit in an open wheel car you can see the wheels. (laughs) So you just naturally or it’s a bit easier I guess. So far going between the two hasn’t been much of an issue and that’s probably because they’re so different.
MLAS: You’ve won the GRC season openers twice in a row. Are you looking for a threepeat?
SS: Ah we’re always looking to win. (chuckles) So that’s always what we call Plan A and hopefully things go well and we don’t have any big problems and we can do it again.
MLAS: Third place overall on the championship standing isn’t shabby at all especially with such tough competition. What did you personally take away from the experience of that championship run?
SS: That we…basically beat ourselves all year. The guys who were up in the championship were there because they didn’t have failures and they didn’t have mechanicals and they finished all the races. Look at Joni (Wiman), he won the championship and he didn’t even win a race all year. You know, we won three races and we probably should have won two or three more, so was basically you know, we had plenty of Speed all year. The problem that we had was we had mechanical failures when we didn’t need ‘em, and they cost us a lot of points.
MLAS: I remember the laptop incident [in New York], when someone plugged a laptop into the car when it wasn’t allowed.
MLAS: That must have been tough.
SS: Yeah well basically they cost us the championship because the points they took away from us for that which was unprecedented, ha! Seemed to be a bit ridiculous but the points they took away ended up costing us the championship. But it wasn’t just that, we also had a lot of failures and even with that I think we should have been able to win the championship if we had just been a little more solid and just ran a cleaner, a cleaner year.
MLAS: What is your preparation like now for Fort Lauderdale and you have the FIA Formula E schedule as well to juggle?
SS: Hmm…my job’s easy. I just get in the car and drive. The real challenge is what the teams do in the off-season, how they prepare the cars and how much work they have, especially in Global Rallycross because you know, it is very much a contact sport and a lot of times things get bent or broken and they gotta fix it in a hurry. So to be fair I think my job’s the easier part of the team for sure.
MLAS: I mean it’s not just getting in the car and driving, then anybody could do it.
SS: (amusedly) Sure it is. What else is there? We’re not curing cancer, we’re racing cars. It’s really simple.
MLAS: There is a degree of talent and skill….
SS: Okay for sure and that’s something that you find very early in life. You know, by the time I was eleven years old it was quite apparent that I had talent to do it. After that [it] just becomes the experience, but it’s already to say the experience I’ve had, it does matter but what I do when I get to the track is really as simple as getting in the car and doing what I do naturally. I don’t want to make it sound simple but it really is. I’ve raced my whole life and there’s never really surprises for me as I get in the car. Now rallycross is a bit different for me so there’s a learning curve and I’m always learning every time I’m in it but that comes naturally. It’s not something you can just try harder to do.
MLAS: It’s like a different mentality, trying to find different solutions to what you’re trying to accomplish?
SS: Yeah, I mean racing is a reactionary sport. You can’t think it out. (laughingly) It’s not chess. You just get in the car and you can’t predict what everyone else does around you. You could just react to it, and what separates the good guys from the not-so-good guys is what they react to naturally is better. That strength of mind probably comes from racing since about ten years-old. All that experience pays off, so when I see something my first reaction is generally the right one.
MLAS: That’s why we watch and follow the sport too. Although it’s man and machine, there’s something very primal in the reactions and muscle memory in action.
SS: Yes, exactly!
MLAS: Lately with the goings on in Indycar, crashing is a big discussion once again. As Tony Kanaan reportedly said that danger is an inherent part of the sport and you have been in some hairy scrapes yourself. With regards to the inevitable crashing, physical and mental recoveries are both important. Do you have a method or routine after the “unfortunate racing event”?
SS: Yeah, I have a really simple one. I don’t put myself into situations that I think are too dangerous. There is a very, very big difference to racing rallycross and racing in Indycar around the Indianapolis 500 – a very big difference. And some guys have to do that and I don’t have to do that. It’s infinitely more dangerous to run an open-wheel car around an oval. It’s by far the most dangerous. So you can’t compare that to running a Formula 1 car with all the safety that it or a GRC car or a Formula E car. You can’t compare the level of danger, okay? It is extremely dangerous to drive an Indycar around the Indy 500 and that’s why I’ll never do it.
MLAS: I did read an Autosport.com article where you were quoted (not directly) that you wouldn’t ever race an Indycar on an oval.
SS: (emphatically) No, never. Absolutely not, absolutely not and what you’re seeing this week is the reason why. I don’t have to do it. I’m not an adrenalin junkie that does it for fun. I do it because I’m a competitor and it’s how I make a living, but I certainly love my life and my family more than I need to feel the risk, to risk my life for a race. So at no point in time would I race an open-wheel car around an oval.
MLAS: It’s a hustle too. This isn’t an easy sport and although some folks do it because there’s nothing else they can do, it’s a tough industry to be in. Have you ever been tempted for whatever reason to say, to heck with this I’m going to go be something else?
SS: No simply because this is what I was made to do. Now I will say that it’s not my intention to continue racing my entire life because there will come a point where my two girls are going to require my attention and my help to get on with their lives, just like my father did for me. When I was eleven years old and it was very clear that racing is what I want to do with my life, my Dad stopped racing his car and he started helping me with mine. Helping teaching me, helping guide me through my life and I will certainly do that for my girls. I don’t think it’s fair to have my girls going through high school or going through their lives and I’m always gone every weekend still racing cars. That’s not the plan for me. So you know there’s certainly an end game to my racing at some point, when my girls would you know, have interests of their own or require my time. So until that point I’m going to still do this because this is what I was made to do and this is what I’m the best at doing in my life. There is an endgame at some point certainly.
MLAS: Is there a possibility we might see a Scott Speed Motorsports emerging at some point?
SS: No, absolutely not! I have zero aspirations of owning my own race team. I do have an RC car track though. That is a new venture that we’ve done here near my home where I’ve started an online RC car hobby shop. speedrc.com and an actual indoor RC racing track here in Mooresville, NC where I’m from. It’s fun because my girls can come out and play with RC cars and they can come hang out and a lot of my friends in the area come race; and it’s an easy way to do it that doesn’t cost a fortune. But that’s the only thing we do outside of my normal jobs.
MLAS: Well that’s cool! That’s still interesting and again with highly competitive people nobody wants to lose.
SS: Yes, we’re very predictable. (laughs)
MLAS: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your career that you’d want to tell other people?
SS: Biggest lesson I’ve learned in my career is that there are lots and lots and lots and lots of very good racing drivers, so the second you think you’re the best racing driver in the world you’ll get like lapped because there are so many kids racing go karts that never even get a chance to race cars because they don’t have the money to do it. So I don’t think you can ever consider anyone being the best racing driver in the world because over half the kids don’t even ever get the chance. It’s not like soccer where you can just pick up the soccer ball and if you kick the soccer ball around better than all the other kids you’re gonna make it. That’s not the case in racing. You need to not only be good but you also have to have someone to pay for it for you. (laughs) It’s a very different animal. So that’s the biggest lesson that I learned.
A Final Word
You can connect with Scott Speed via the following social media channels:
Red Bull GRC is taking it to the streets of Fort Lauderdale in front of the Bahia Mar Resort & Marina for the season opener on May 30-31, 2015. Tickets can be purchased online but if you can’t see be there in person, tune in to NBC on the Sunday at 3:00pm EST for the Supercar finals. The GRC Lites will air on NBC Sports Network, Wednesday June 3, 2015.