No more hanging out at the casino in Monte Carlo or attending parties hosted by a prince in Dubai.
These days, Scott Speed spends down time playing video games in his motor coach or hanging out with other drivers. And that’s just fine with the former Formula One driver.
“I’m having a lot of fun,” Speed said last Friday, just hours before going out and getting his first ARCA stock car victory at Kansas Speedway.
“Even outside the racing, just being back in America in general has been super easy,” he said. “Everyone’s been very friendly. It’s been great.”
This is “Stock Car Racing 101” for Speed, who was fired midway through last season by the Toro Rosso (Red Bull) Formula One team. But Red Bull, which helped him get to F1 as part of its driver development program, has stuck with the 25-year-old Californian, giving him the opportunity to work his way up to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series.
It’s certainly a different route than that taken by Juan Pablo Montoya, another former Formula One driver, and Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr., open-wheel stars in America, who all went straight to NASCAR’s top two series, Nationwide and Cup.
“(Red Bull) have been so supportive that it’s given me the opportunity to take my time and figure out what I have to do to get to Cup,” Speed said. “I’m not worried about winning and impressing people right now, I’m just worried about learning.
“It’s actually helping me a lot. I’m learning quicker, I would say, than I have in my past when I really had to get results, you had to win, you had to keep moving up. So it’s been great.”
Jay Frye, Red Bull Racing’s new general manager, is impressed with what he has seen from Speed, and that’s why the original plan to have Speed run only the full ARCA schedule this season has been amended to include 11 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races in a Bill Davis Racing Toyota.
“He certainly has exceeded our expectations, so we’ve accelerated the process based on his performance to date,” Frye said Tuesday in a phone interview.
He said the team was particularly impressed by a situation that came up in the truck race in March at Atlanta.
“Right off the bat in the truck race he had a tire going down,” Frye said. “He immediately pitted and it was the right call. The tire wasn’t going down, the wheel was loose.
“He has an understanding and feel for tires and for the car and the truck. He’s very, very far along in that. … His ability to communicate to the team what he is feeling is really, really good.”
Speed has raced in five ARCA events since late last year and three truck races so far this season, finishing 10th and eighth in the last two.
The most recent of those came Saturday night in Kansas, where he learned some NASCAR lessons.
He was given back-to-back drivethrough penalties, the first for passing on the wrong (left) side on a restart and the second for speeding upon entering the pit on the first drivethrough.
That’s OK with Speed, though, because this is all a big learning process.
“We certainly had a top-10 truck, and even with all the penalties, we still ended up coming back in that same spot,” Speed said. “It was a lot of good practice passing trucks out there and running with the guys at the top end of the field.”
Beyond the less glamorous surroundings, the biggest difference for Speed is driving the bulky cars and trucks, compared to the small, agile F1 cars.
“I think to drive the car fast is quite a bit easier and less stressful because the cars react a lot slower and it brings back a lot of driver feel,” Speed said. “You know, there’s no on-board computer here. The only decisions being made on the car are based on what you feel. And you feel a lot because the car moves around a lot. … It’s very old school.
“But the racing’s really good and I love it. I fell in love with it right away because it’s really close, you move, hit some people right away, you rub on them and (it’s) just good quality racing.”
Although he says the other F1 drivers were “cool,” Speed has been impressed with how much help he has gotten from the drivers on the Red Bull team.
“Driver-wise, Mike Skinner and Brian Vickers have been really helpful,” he said. “I mean, over the top. They don’t hold anything back. They give me everything I need.”
If Speed continues his progress, Frye said he could make at least a couple of Cup starts in 2009. But Speed insists he isn’t on a strict timetable. He’s just happy to be racing.
“At the end of the day, I would be happy driving golf carts if it was close racing, and that is what this is,” he said.