Is Scott Speed just filling time with Indy?
13 May 2011
"I want to stay in NASCAR," says Scott Speed, bluntly. "I want to keep pushing because I think I have a lot to prove there."
So what's the Californian doing in Indianapolis, getting reacquainted with open wheel cars again reminiscent of the F1 cars he drove back in 2007 for Toro Rosso? He's never even seen the Indy 500 race live in person before, let alone seriously contemplated entering it.
"It's one of those things where beggars can't be choosers and if an amazing opportunity comes along with IndyCar I'd be silly to turn that down," he explains - but even so, that "amazing opportunity" took some arm-twisting by Jay Penske to get Speed to sign up for the Indianapolis 500, the race dubbed "The Greatest Spectacle in the World."
"Well, I got a text like about a week ago I guess, asking if I was available to run the Indy 500. And at the time I had a conflict on qualifying weekend with the Iowa Nationwide Series race," Speed continues. "The next morning Jay called me and basically assured me that the equipment they have is top‑notch and that they have got a real solid program.
"He did a good job of selling me on it and how it was going to be a solid effort into it," Speed adds. "The one thing I did not want to do all year was get into something mediocre, and was this the first thing that came along. That's why I was out of a seat for most of the year ... But it's one of those things where if it wasn't such a good opportunity, I wasn't interested in doing it."
Speed still took some convincing before he agreed to call Kevin Harvick, for whose Nationwide Series team he had been due to drive at Iowa on Indy qualifying weekend. Speed's instincts were clearly to stay loyal to Harvick in the hope that the relationship with the Sprint Cup star would lead to more opportunities in NASCAR.
"I basically called Kevin Harvick and, you know, explained to him the opportunity that I had and I needed to make sure that it was going to be no problem with his sponsors and the stuff he has going on on the Nationwide Series side that I had already committed to," says Speed. "He was basically able to replace me, and me leaving that program wasn't going to cause him too much pain."
Speed's sense of unfinished business in NASCAR partly stems from how he was let go by the Red Bull team at the end of 2010. Speed had a long association with the drinks company, and was the product of their driver development programme that led to his F1 seat, but the relationship has ultimately ended in acrimony and with Speed filing a $6.5m lawsuit because of how the late decision had made it impossible for him to find a team for 2011. "It was one of those things where you start looking for rides in December, it's difficult to land anything good for a full‑time or even for part‑time races," he says.
It was even more aggravating to him because "I really [felt that I had] finally found my footing," Speed says about his last year in NASCAR. "It took me a couple years and it's a tough learning process. I don't want to just give up now. It just seems silly. I want to bide my time."
But with his total 2011 motor sports commitments reduced to only three Nationwide events (the now-cancelled Iowa on May 20, and Iowa a second time along with Montreal in August), the chance to run in Indianapolis was hard to refuse - especially as the offer from Penske's Dragon Racing also covered the Vegas world championship and its huge $5m prize fund for any non-IndyCar series regular who can win the race. That sort of money could make a huge difference in terms of funding a 2012 drive in any series Speed wants.
When asked if he would consider a full-time IZOD IndyCar series drive, he responds "Yes, absolutely!" and says that he had put out "some small feelers out in that direction" even before the call from Penske. But it's hard not to think he feels Indy would be second-best when he goes on to say that, "By the same token, being certainly as successful as I've been at open wheel, that's something I've already been-there, done-that ... It wouldn't be the same to go back and do well in IndyCar when I've already raced in F1.
"At this moment, I am certainly open to both ways, [but] going to NASCAR is one of those things where I started from scratch. It's like a whole different career."
For his part, Jay Penske's plan is clear: "Quite simply, the best case would be having [main Dragon Racing driver Paul Tracy] finish his career with us next year driving alongside Scott as team mates for the entire 2012 season ... The pair would be unstoppable."
Speed actually didn't know Penske all that well prior to getting the call out of the blue: "I think I remembered Jay from a while, but it's one of those things where I've really been removed from any kind of circle of open‑wheel people for the last four years pretty much," he says. "[So] I don't know Jay very well but from the very beginning, Jay has always been easy for me to talk to. I think we have very similar personalities and it's been something that it's been easy to talk to him."
Now he's tried out an IndyCar at Chicagoland and at Rookie Orientation at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, how does it compare with the other vehicles he's had? "The F1 car when I drove it had an unbelievable amount of grip and downforce and technology in it," he confirms. "The stock cars obviously had really no technology and no grip in them. And the IndyCar was somewhere in the middle; obviously a lot more towards the F1 car with the grip level.
"But running that around an oval was really strange because the only oval experience I've ever had has been in a real heavy stock car that did not have a lot of grip. Running around the white line at Chicago going 215 is quite a bit different than from the last time I was there in a Cup car."
It's hard not to come away with the feeling that if someone waved a Sprint Cup ride under Speed's nose, he'd drop all this Indy 500 nonsense and be off back to NASCAR in a shot. But a few years back, fans and pundits alike wondered if Dario Franchitti would ever amount to anything in IndyCar, when the unification of IRL and ChampCar meant that the Scot would have to get used to more oval runs and fewer race course events that were clearly his preference as he eyed up a possible move to F1 in Europe.
Fast forward a few years and Dario is not just an accomplished master of the ovals, he's a two-time winner of the Indy 500 looking to add a third victory in 2011, and still taking time out in pit road to give Speed a few words of advice at the rookie orientation day. Dario's become a huge fan of the Indy 500, and perhaps the same thing will happen with Scott Speed given time: the magic of a full-to-capacity Speedway on Memorial Day weekend has won over many a convert in its day.
Or perhaps, despite being just 28, Speed is starting to feel the chill of the passing years. He's due to become a father for the first time in the autumn, and is already talking about the need to give up racing when his new daughter is old enough to need a full-time father around the place. That leaves him just 8-10 years in his racing career, and perhaps - after all the time spent learning the ropes in NASCAR - he simply feels it's too late to start from scratch all over again in IndyCar.
"Whatever happens, next year is going to be a major transition year for me and my career," he concludes. And for Speed it seems that this crossroads - ironically - is to be found on an oval.