Red Bull driver search fills void

IMOLA, Italy -- The fact that Scott Speed is the first American driver to win a full-season European junior formula championship won't make headlines in National Speed Sport News or Autosport, much less in daily newspapers.

But Speed's title-winning performance in the Formula Renault 2000 Eurocup -- which he clinched this Labor Day weekend -- offers tangible proof that Americans still can perform at a high level in international road racing.

That's important if you're interested in seeing the Stars and Stripes back on a Formula 1 grid again after an 11-year absence because American road racing hasn't been particularly successful in getting its drivers there. The last American to reach Formula 1 through our homeland road racing ladder system (loosely described as Formula Atlantic, Indy Lights and Champ Cars) was Michael Andretti, though Townsend Bell and Derek Hill raced in F1's top feeder series (Formula 3000) within the last year.

The advent of the Indy Racing League in 1996 just made things more confusing for F1-minded drivers racing in America because it offered an alternative place to race, one that took the focus away from road racing. As business reasons dictated their move to the IRL, drivers like Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon pretty much were forced to abandon their F1 dreams.

Regardless of where they are from or how they came up, CART champions who made the jump to F1 haven't amassed a particularly stellar record. Andretti's travails during his 13-race Grand Prix career in 1993 are well known, and Alex Zanardi and more recently Cristiano da Matta failed to make an impact. Da Matta was demoted by the Toyota F1 team and looks likely to return to Champ Cars next year.

Jacques Villeneuve was the only former Champ Car pilot in recent years who produced genuine results in F1, backing up his 1995 CART championship by winning the F1 world title in 1997. But poor management caused Villeneuve's career to fizzle in the years since.

The common perception abroad is that American open-wheel road racing is soft. There are too many full-course cautions that disrupt the flow and the fortunes of races, not to mention unusual rules and overzealous officials. Many observers believe that no American will succeed in reaching F1 unless they come up through the European junior formula ranks, a trail that the Red Bull American F1 Driver Search is attempting to blaze.

Bobby Rahal raced Formula Atlantic in North America before running a full season of European Formula 3 in 1978 -- the year Mario Andretti became the second American (after Phil Hill in 1961) to win the F1 World Championship. At the end of that year, Rahal put together a deal to run a second Walter Wolf Racing entry in the U.S. and Canadian Grands Prix. Rahal showed promise, but no F1 offers materialized for 1979 and midway through a season of campaigning Formula 2 in Europe, he accepted an offer to return home to race in the SCCA Can-Am Series. That led him into CART Champ Cars in 1982, where Rahal went on to make his name and fortune.

Looking back, Rahal recalls his time in Europe racing Formula 3 and Formula 2 as vital to his career.

"Without doubt, my two years of junior formula racing in Europe were two of the greatest years I ever spent," he says. "That was because of the guys I raced against, including Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Stefan Johansson, Nelson Piquet, Arie Luyendyk, Derrick Warwick and Keke Rosberg. They went on to dominate racing on both sides of the Atlantic for the next decade and a half. So I definitely think the internationalism provides value.

"If you beat everybody, then you really say something. If you just beat a narrow little group, you're nothing more than a big fish in a little pond. That's fine if it's what you want. But to me, the ones who achieved true greatness were the ones who were willing to put their talent up against any talent in the world.

"The guys I always admired and respected like Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, Peter Revson and, obviously Mario Andretti, were guys who were willing to step outside of their narrow little world and take on the world," Rahal continued. "I'm not one of those who believes that Americans aren't capable of beating the world's best. But Americans have to be willing to go put themselves in that environment, especially in the training years, to be able to do that. Unfortunately, most young Americans are not willing to do that. They're not motivated to do it, and they don't see the value in it. But the reality is you have to go where the competition is."

Living in Europe has obviously been a culture shock for Speed and his Red Bull Junior teammates, Colin Fleming and Dominic Claessens. But rather then resist the lifestyle change, Speed and his cohorts embraced it, even if it means working a lot harder than they would if they were racing at a similar level on the American road racing ladder system.

Rahal isn't the only American who formerly raced in F1 who believes that our racers need to do their training abroad. Born in Phoenix and raised in Europe, Eddie Cheever went straight from Formula 3 into F1 in 1978, eventually earning a pair of seconds and seven third-place finishes in 132 Grands Prix. Now he runs an IRL IndyCar Series team, though his Red Bull backing is a separate entity to the Driver Search program.

"Everybody who thinks that only Europeans can be Formula 1 drivers, what a crock," Cheever said. "We probably have a thousand kids who are as talented as anybody else. But they need the right preparation of racing in conditions that are difficult and aggressive like it is in England."

However, Cheever has seen enough since 2000 to believe that the popularity of Formula 1 in America is on the upswing -- and that the next American F1 pilot isn't far from being reality.

"Two things happened," he said. "F1 came back to the USA at a place like Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Red Bull has made very large investments in trying to find, assist and grow the next generation of open wheel road racers who might migrate to Formula 1. But there is a big gap between the beginning step of the ladder and the top. You have to shimmy your way up and there are no steps in between."

That's the challenge for Scott Speed in 2005. If he achieves the same success in Formula 2 or Formula Renault V6 next year, Formula 1 is a virtual lock in 2006. If not, there's always American racing.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.