Scott Speed, a Case Study in Nominative Determinism: Open-Wheel Invaders, Part 2

Scott Speed was supposed to be the next American F1 champion. At least, that’s what the commercial for the Red Bull Driver Search said. 

In 2002, three years before Red Bull bought the assets of the Jaguar F1 team, the Austrian energy drink manufacturer announced the Driver Search, the ancestor of today’s Red Bull Junior Team. 

Throughout the summer of 2002, Red Bull would evaluate young American racing drivers, selecting one to back throughout the European single-seat ladder. After a few months of evaluation, Red Bull settled on the young Californian with the perfect name for a race car driver: Scott Speed. 

With Red Bull’s backing, Speed vaulted his way up the European formula racing ladder, with the highlight being his 2005 third-place result in GP2 (now Formula 2). Five podium finishes in 23 races saw him finish the season just behind Nico Rosberg and Heikki Kovaleinen. 

Also in 2005, Speed became the first American driver to participate in an F1 race weekend since Michael Andretti’s half-season with McLaren in 1993, when he drove the Red Bull RB1 in free practice at the Canadian Grand Prix. 

With Red Bull’s purchase of Minardi and the creation of Scuderia Toro Rosso in 2006, Speed was announced as one of the team’s two full-time drivers, alongside Vitantonio Liuzzi. 

Speed’s first year in F1 was a catastrophe. The closest he came to scoring points was in the third race in Australia, but a 25-second time penalty dropped him out of the top eight. He wouldn’t score points the entire rest of the season, soundly defeated by his teammate Liuzzi. 

Though Red Bull’s chosen champion would return to Toro Rosso for 2007, his performance continued to disappoint. A series of crashes at the start of the year raised tensions between Speed and the team, culminating in team principal Franz Tost reportedly punching Speed after he crashed out in wet conditions in the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. 

Speed was dropped by the next round in Hungary, replaced with BMW test driver Sebastian Vettel. Vettel would go on to win four World Championships in Red Bull-branded cars. 

After losing his F1 drive, Speed told Autosport, “Red Bull has been amazing to me. . . it’s a shame to let these two people [Tost and advisor Gerhard Berger] ruin this whole thing. As far as my future in F1 is concerned, you couldn’t pay me enough money to race for those two people again. If it was with a different team, that would be great, but I would also like to do something else with Red Bull, even if it was outside F1.”

Speed’s next endeavor with Red Bull was about as far outside F1 as possible. In 2008, he ran a full ARCA schedule with Eddie Sharp Racing in a Red Bull-sponsored Toyota.

Showing some of the initial promise that made Red Bull so bullish on him, Speed took to stock cars like a fish to water. He won at Kansas in just his fifth career start, and would add three more victories to his total before the finale at Toledo Speedway.

Speed entered the ARCA finale with a serious shot at the title, just having to hold off Roush Racing development driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.  

On lap 27 of 200, while battling for second place, Stenhouse sent Speed hard into the wall in turn three. The move was intentional and ensured Speed would not be the 2008 ARCA champion. 

But Speed would make sure that Stenhouse wasn’t either. Ten laps later, as the leaders came around to put Speed’s smashed-up Camry another lap down, the former F1 driver dumped Stenhouse into turn one, destroying both cars. ARCA officials parked Speed for the rest of the race, meaning he finished fifth in the season standings, one spot behind Stenhouse. Justin Allgaier won the title. 

While winning an ARCA championship and proving he could short-track with the best of them, Speed also ran a limited schedule in the NASCAR Truck Series in 2008, in a Red Bull-sponsored No. 22 for Toyota early-adopters Bill Davis Racing. 

At Dover, Speed scored his first Truck Series win in just his eighth start, and he would end the season with nine top-tens in 16 starts. For all intents and purposes, Speed was a hot prospect. Toyota and the Red Bull Racing NASCAR operation were making steady improvements. 

Dietrich Mateschitz, Red Bull’s owner, moved Speed up to the Cup Series full-time in 2009, driving the No. 82 Camry. To speed up his development, Red Bull would also sponsor Speed in a part-time schedule in Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 99 in the Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series.

It did not go according to plan. Speed’s best finish in the opening six races of 2009 was 21st at Las Vegas, and he failed to qualify for race seven in Texas. Although Speed would finish fifth in a typically crash-filled April Talladega race for his first career top-five, he would only come top-fifteen once more by season’s end. The No. 82 would end 2009 a disappointing 36th in owners’ points, while Red Bull’s other driver, Brian Vickers, won at Michigan and made the Chase for the Cup.

The Nationwide Series numbers were better: eight top-tens from 16 starts, including a pole at Las Vegas. But Red Bull only entered Speed in Cup races in 2010, and the team suffered a further setback when Vickers had to take leave while dealing with health issues. With a revolving door of drivers in the No. 83 and Speed only good for two more top-tens, Red Bull released Speed from his contract at the end of the season. With the chance to bring back Vickers and take on proven race-winner Kasey Kahne for 2011, Red Bull no longer had a need for Speed. 

The problem was, earlier that season, Red Bull had signed an extension with Speed that should have kept him in the No. 82 until 2013. So Speed sued.

In an interview with ESPN, Speed described a dysfunctional environment behind the scenes at NASCAR’s only Austrian team, as the management planned to release either the No. 82 or No. 83 crew to make way for the incoming Richard Petty Motorsports team that would follow Kahne. 

“It should have been a reality TV show,” said Speed. “They were like, ‘we’re going to keep one team. Show us what you’ve got’. . . I felt so terrible for the guys let go.”

Speed likened the experience to being “kept with a sock in my mouth and my hands tied behind my back” as he was contractually forbidden from approaching other teams even as Red Bull made it clear he wasn’t welcome back.

After departing the Red Bull organization, Speed attempted to qualify for the 2011 Indy 500, and raced part-time in NASCAR with Leavine Family Racing. In 2014, he joined Andretti Autosport’s Global Rallycross program and won three championships behind the wheel of turbocharged all-wheel-drive Volkswagen Beetles. He made occasional starts in the 2014-15 season of Formula E, and currently contests Travis Pastrana’s Nitro Rallycross series for Team Subaru USA after Global Rallycross shut down. 

He was also once briefly banned from iRacing for intentional contact. 

In December 2011, Red Bull Racing settled with Scott Speed out of court, and shut down their NASCAR program completely.

Scott Speed’s time in NASCAR started out as strong as any open-wheel invader. It is certainly usual for any F1 driver to jump down to ARCA full-time, but it transformed Speed’s reputation from crash-prone open-wheel backmarker to rising stock-car star. His early Truck and Nationwide results are impressive for any development driver in the Buschwhacking era. But for whatever reason, the results were just never there in the Cup car. 

The high-profile failure of Scott Speed was seen by many as proof that the open-wheel invasion was a mistake, that massively-hyped stars of international racing underestimated the challenge of driving stock cars in circles. That’s not really the lesson to learn here: Speed at least attempted to pay his dues. Nobody else went full-time in ARCA after leaving Formula 1. And the results were there in the lower divisions. After winning four races and competing for the championship against a stacked field, Speed was ready to graduate upwards.

He just shouldn’t have graduated immediately to Cup. The problem was, by 2009, the effects that full-time Buschwacking were beginning to be felt. Speed, Juan Pablo Montoya, David Ragan, Joey Logano and others never ran full-time in any lower NASCAR series before jumping into top Cup rides, and none of them were initially able to live up to expectations. 

But the most important lesson to learn from Scott Speed might not even relate to NASCAR at all. Speed was the first driver to be chewed up and spit out by one of Red Bull Racing’s driver development schemes. Lately, it’s been a common story in the international racing world: Jean-Eric Vergne, Alexander Albon, Daniil Kvyat, drivers ascend to Formula 1 with Red Bull and then get plucked from the seat with little fanfare just as quickly. Max Verstappen, a generational talent in open-wheel racing, is the only driver to have kept ahead of Red Bull’s lofty aspirations. 

Scott Speed was Red Bull’s first development driver in stock cars, and immediately he almost won the very first championship they put him in. Red Bull has proven incredibly good at picking out talented drivers, but less so at developing them to their full potential. Vergne, Albon, Kvyat, Daniel Ricciardo, Pierre Gasly, Carlos Sainz, and of course Verstappen and Vettel have proven themselves time and time again to be some of the best drivers in the world. 

But the sink-or-swim “reality show” behind the scenes in Red Bull’s driver development programs suggests that picking a large group of drivers and narrowing them down to just a few candidates is the name of the game. The Red Bull Junior Team is set up more for Red Bull’s benefit than for any driver involved, more so even than any other driver development program.

I don’t think Scott Speed would have won Cup championships, but for a driver who found some success in European single-seater racing, stock cars, and rallycross, he’s definitely got skill behind the wheel. I only wonder what his NASCAR results would have looked like had he been full-time in the Nationwide Series in 2009 and 2010.

Featured image sourced from Getty Images for NASCAR

Published by Jack Swansey

Originally from North Carolina, Jack has been a NASCAR fan since 2008, and his favorite driver is Bubba Wallace. At Wesleyan University, he studied film and anthropology and wrote his senior thesis about the fan culture of American stock car racing. When not watching NASCAR, Jack is probably looking for some other motorsport to watch, scouring antique stores for hard-to-find diecasts, or investigating the history of some obscure backmarker team or another. To fund his HotWheels collection, Jack works in television production.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: