Now, That’s a Proper Name

Times Staff Writer

As a boy growing up in the San Joaquin Valley, Scott Speed dreamed of driving in the prestigious Formula One series, whose sleek, built-for-racing cars course through such exotic locales as Monte Carlo and San Marino.

Yes, Speed is his real name. And his desire was so intense that when he played racing video games at home, he wore a helmet, propped his feet forward as if he were working the pedals, and put a fan in front of him to simulate the wind rushing past his face.

“I was the one kid in my neighborhood saying, ‘I want to go into Formula One,’ ” recalled Speed, who turned 23 in January. “Everyone looked at me and said, ‘Oh, sure, and I want to be an astronaut.’ ”

But Speed’s dream is scheduled to come true today -- despite a serious health problem that could have ended his career before it started -- by driving in the season-opening Formula One race on the Persian Gulf island of Bahrain off the coast of Saudi Arabia.


The debut of the Manteca, Calif., native will be closely watched not only by racing fans around the world, but by many with only a passing interest in the sport, because Speed is the first American to compete in Formula One in more than a decade.

The series is dominated by European teams and drivers, such as defending champion Fernando Alonso of Spain and the German-born king of Formula One, Michael Schumacher, who has won the title seven times. By breaking into that elite fraternity, Speed will be carrying U.S. hopes into the driver’s seat along with his own ambition.

“I’m not sure he’s ready to take on that responsibility, but he knows he has it,” said his father, Mike Speed, 46, who will be in Bahrain to provide support. “He’s really grown up a lot.”

Scott Speed said he also hoped his racing would “raise the awareness of Formula One in America,” which has only a modest interest in that kind of racing, compared with the nation’s near devotion to its home-grown NASCAR stock car racing.

Several legendary American drivers have competed in Formula One over the last five decades, including Dan Gurney, Bobby Rahal and Mario Andretti, whose son, Michael, was the last American to race in the series, for a single season in 1993.

But it’s been a difficult transition for most. Only one American-born driver, Southern Californian Phil Hill, has won the Formula One championship, and that was 45 years ago. Mario Andretti, who emigrated from Italy, accomplished the feat in 1978 -- driving for a British team.

Formula One itself is among those hoping Speed’s arrival will boost the popularity of the sport in the United States, especially after its debacle last year during its only U.S. stop, at the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis

Before the race started, 14 of the 20 drivers abruptly pulled off the track in a tire-safety dispute, infuriating a crowd of 150,000. Formula One plans to run at Indianapolis again this year, on July 2, and Speed expects to be in the field.


Most Americans haven’t heard of Speed, because he has been living and racing in Europe for the last three years, preparing to join Formula One.

Speed drives for a new team, Scuderia Toro Rosso (that’s Red Bull Stable in Italian), co-owned by the Red Bull energy drink company based in Austria. Scuderia Toro Rosso is Red Bull’s second team, and Speed isn’t expected to win a race this year, readily acknowledging that his car is inferior to those driven by Formula One’s best.

But Gurney, who won four Formula One races in the 1960s, said the low expectations might be a plus for Speed as he adjusts to the rigors of Formula One racing and to the role of being the sport’s lone American.

“I think it’s good that a lot of people don’t expect anything,” said Gurney, who now runs a racing enterprise in Santa Ana. “Then if you do well, it’s appreciated.” Yet, being the only American in the field “also could provide additional stimulus” for Speed, he said.


Speed is just grateful to be in the running.

“I’m very thankful for the opportunity I’ve been given,” he said. “I tell myself I’m not expected to do too much with my lack of experience. But at the same time I’m a racing driver.”

In many ways, Speed was a typical American kid growing up in his parents’ three-bedroom house. He played baseball and football, and graduated from Manteca’s East Union High. His favorite food was a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.

He was the son of a go-kart racer, and, by the time Speed was 11, he was racing karts too. He won multiple go-kart titles as a teenager. Speed and his dad also would wake up in the dark on Sunday mornings to watch Formula One races -- taking place in countries that were several time zones ahead -- on TV.


Speed graduated to race cars in 2001 and kept winning. The next year, he got his big break when Red Bull -- looking for another way to promote its drinks in the United States -- began a competition to find an American driver. Speed won that too, and left for Europe to hone his skills. He was 19.

“He didn’t even know how to use an ATM card at the time,” Mike Speed recalled.

But a much bigger problem developed in 2002-03: Scott began having severe stomach troubles, and eventually was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory digestive disorder. At one point, he lost control of his bowels, and had to wear diapers.

The next year, doctors said he needed to have his colon removed, a colostomy, which would have meant wearing a plastic container to collect his waste. And it probably would have meant the end of his racing days.


Speed’s overall physical condition also deteriorated. At 5 feet 10, Speed typically weighs about 150 pounds, but he dropped to under 125 pounds and, on one occasion, needed a blood transfusion.

“It was heartbreaking,” Mike Speed said. “The weird thing about it is that he was still performing and winning. Finally, Red Bull connected him with this specialist in Vienna.”

The specialist was Christoph Gasche, a gastroenterologist, who immediately prescribed the drug Pentasa, often used to treat bowel problems related to Crohn’s disease. The medicine also worked for Speed.

“I still take 1,000 milligrams of Pentasa every day, and there have been no symptoms of the colitis anymore,” he said. “At this point, it’s like I never had it, but it is something you have for the rest of your life, so you have to be careful.”


Speed, by most accounts, has the attributes to be a good race driver, except the experience. He’s described as fiercely competitive, fearless, stubborn and supremely confident. But to succeed, he’ll also need reliable cars and plenty of racing luck.

Speed said his success was likely to come in small doses, which might take American fans some time to accept.

“It’s not like watching a race like NASCAR, where every car is the same and every team is relatively the same,” which makes it more likely that any of them could take the checkered flag, he said. “Formula One is different, with much more drama under the surface.”

Speed’s drama centers on whether he can simply earn some championship points this year, which Formula One awards to the top eight finishers of each race. Winning only a few points, he said, “would be a huge success.”


He’ll get his first chance in Bahrain, on the other side of the world from Manteca. And for the first time in years, Americans will be able to root for one of their own in Formula One.

When the race ends, Speed said, “We’ll certainly know what to expect” for the rest of the year. But no matter how he finishes, he added, “It is going to be a very emotional experience.”