Former F1 driver Speed taking more traditional route to Cup Series

On May 4, 2007, Scott Speed was chilling, unwinding after a weekend of Formula One racing in the sunny, sandy oasis of Sakhir, Bahrain. He and his friends were back home in Europe, hitting one of their favorite Italian dining spots.

On May 4, 2008, Speed was sweating in the sunny Sandhills town of Rockingham, N.C., chatting about his previous night out in the nearby golf oasis of Pinehurst, N.C.

"We were told about a nice little authentic Italian place in town," he said, describing the latest stop of his on-the-road restaurant reviews for ESPNtheMag.com. "Bad news. We had our first roach sighting of the season."

Welcome to stock car racing, Mr. Speed.

After a lifetime spent clawing his way up the Formula One open-wheel career ladder, the 25-year-old Californian is now contending for the ARCA Re/Max Series crown, announcing his presence with authority by winning at the Kansas Speedway on April 25. Even after a Lap 10 wreck at Rockingham, he still sits eighth in points.

While his fellow open wheel defectors are taking their lumps in Sprint Cup, Speed is taking the more methodical road to NASCAR's top division. While Speed was winning at Kansas, Dario Franchitti was having his ankle broken at Talladega. While Speed was laughing about the Rockingham roach, Patrick Carpentier was being slapped around like a piƱata at Richmond and Sam Hornish Jr. was falling to 34th in points.

"My weekends," he said with a smile, "are stress-free."

Those weekends used to be spent in the casinos of Monte Carlo alongside Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso. Now they are spent racing on crusty old speedways like The Rock, alongside a sordid gang of racers that includes 46-year-old nine-time ARCA champ Frank Kimmel and teenage wunderkind Joey Logano. One week Speed is racing on the high banks of Talladega, while the next he could be on the triangle of Pocono or the 1-mile dirt oval of the Illinois State Fairgrounds -- tracks that were all built at least 60 miles from the nearest macchiato.

And he loves it.

"What's not to like, man?" he says, not realizing that he's shouting over the tunes pumping through his iPhone ear buds. "This is just a bunch of racers wanting to get out there and get it on. You've got guys with big teams behind them and some guys who are barely making it out here every week. We've got young, old, guys, girls, everybody. But you know what we don't have? Rich a--holes. I've seen enough of them to last me the rest of my life."

Not so long ago, Speed was best known as the first American F1 regular in more than a decade, discovered by a Red Bull-backed driver talent search. His team, Scuderia Toro Rosso, was created as a sister operation to Red Bull's primary Formula One effort, and Speed was seen as the young man who could help build the organization and also help F1 finally build a serious bridge to American race fans.

"It didn't exactly work out that way, did it?" Speed said with a smile, but with obvious irritation in his voice.

Most F1 stories are complicated tales of ego, politics and really rich people who don't like being told what to do. Speed's demise at Toro Rosso is no different. After a dramatic, sometimes hurtful, exchange of words through the European media, team manager and former F1 driver Gerhard Berger booted the Yank out of his ride after a season and a half.

But as soon as he was shown the door in Faenza, Italy, another door opened in Mooresville, N.C. Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz's fondness for the American led to a conversation about where he wanted to race in the future. Speed's answer was simple, direct, and even a little shocking: He wanted to race stock cars.

Now, especially when ARCA shares race weekends with the larger press corps of NASCAR or the IRL, the media tries to churn up Speed's emotions on the subject of his F1 failings. When that doesn't work, they try to lure him into saying something elitist, a Euro-chic quote that will make him sound like Jean Girard from "Talladega Nights."

It never works.

"That's not who I am," he said with a giant smile. "I guess some people maybe expected that from me, but once they work with me or talk to me, I think they know pretty quick that's not what I'm about. I'm about racing."

Good thing, because he's going to be doing plenty of it. In addition to the 21-race ARCA schedule, Speed will drive in at least 11 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races (he's already run three) and a yet-to-be-determined Nationwide Series schedule. He could make his Cup debut as early as this season, but certainly by 2009, if all goes well.

So far, it has.

"He's doing great," longtime Cup Series crew chief Slugger Labbe said, while standing in the Rockingham garage watching the No. 2 Red Bull Toyota being rolled toward pit road. Speed has been surrounded by a team of NASCAR veterans at Red Bull, from Labbe and competition director Elton Sawyer to teammates Mike Skinner and Brian Vickers. "Don't expect Scott's current schedule to stay the way it is. He's shown that he's ready for more, so that's what we'll give him. But, to his credit, he's in no hurry."

Despite his last name, Speed does understand the importance of taking his time as he learns this whole new world. One day after winning the ARCA event at Kansas, he looked every bit the rookie as he drew back-to-back pass-through penalties in the Truck Series event, one for passing on the wrong side during a restart and the other for speeding on pit road. Even though he battled back to finish eighth, the message had been sent.

"Obviously I still have a lot to learn. I want to do this right, and I want to be ready when I finally do make it to Cup. There's no rush. I know my car is waiting for me, no matter how long it takes."

And no matter how many roaches he runs into along the way.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.