Speed quickly gets feel for NASCAR

Think of it this way: Scott Speed used to be a passenger in a rocket, taking a seat and knowing he had no control over how the powerful piece of machinery under his feet would react after launch.

Now he is the pilot of a commercial airline.

“Before, it was all controlled by a board of engineers,” Speed said. “They told you everything. If they could make you faster, they did, and you sort of clapped your hands and cheered them on. Here, you’re telling the crew chief everything about how the car is handling during a race. This is racing. It’s like I’m back in karts.

“The more I do this, the better I will be. Period.”

Speed envisions his shift from open-wheel racing to stock cars with success similar to Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt than the failures of Dario Franchitti and Jacques Villeneuve.

Speed owns the NASCAR skill but not the experience. He has the confidence but needs more know-how.

He also paints his toenails.

More on that later.

For the first time tonight, Speed will compete at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when he drives the No. 22 in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series stop. It is his ninth race in trucks and already he has a win and five top-10 finishes.

Think of it this way: Speed was born and raised in California and yet dreamed of racing on European soil, home to Formula One cars that reach 225 mph and take corners at g-force rates best described as preposterous. He made it to F1, because how can a kid named Speed not go fast?

For nearly two seasons, he raced in the most popular and technically superior class of motor sports on the planet.

Now he wants to shine in vehicles that are too heavy, whose tires are too small and ones that own 1,000 pounds of downforce and excessive horsepower.

“Scott used to drive cars that when you put your foot on the break, they stopped, and when you turned the wheel, they turned,” said Todd Bodine, the 2006 trucks champion who has competed in all three NASCAR series. “Our stuff doesn’t do that. A lot of guys really have a hard time with the transition. It’s hard to learn to drive it and not let it drive you.

“It’s difficult for many to bridge the gap, to go from not giving any feedback during a race to doing it the entire time. Some can. Some can’t. Scott is such an incredible talent, for him to come over and do what he already has, I think he could be around (NASCAR) a long time.”

He has a chance because he hasn’t spent years in only single-seat racing like others (Franchitti) who recently tried the NASCAR switch, because for every series Speed has raced, he has stepped into a high-caliber ride, because he has succeeded enough in ARCA to be that series’ current points leader.

Because, well, he paints his toenails.

NASCAR drivers on almost every level live to satisfy their corporate bosses. Speed is a different sort, forthright in his opinions and fashionable in his taste, evident by those checkered high-tops with pink shoelaces he wore at a news conference Thursday.

Some believe his carefree ways led to him losing his F1 ride. In NASCAR, they would be a welcome change, or at least help swing some of the cameras away from Tony Stewart in times of debate.

Speed is 25 and sponsored by Red Bull, an ideal brand to promote someone more trendy than conventional. The long-term plan is a full-time Cup ride. The immediate strategy is to continue building a NASCAR resume of high finishes by getting better at that small, incredibly significant tactic all great drivers master: passing others on the outside.

“That’s quite a learning experience right there,” Speed said. “I could come over to Cup right now and not look silly. It’s two corners. Feel when the car is at its limit and keep it there. I may never be as good as Kyle Busch in NASCAR, but psychologically as a professional athlete coming from (F1), I’m confident in what I can do.

“The driver is 1,000 more times influential in NASCAR than F1. I have all the data (on NASCAR). I know all the facts. I just haven’t seen it play out very much against guys who have done it 38 weeks year after year. They’re able to make decisions about things during a race that can make the difference. That’s where the experience comes in. I just need more of it.”

It’s how you go from passenger to pilot, painted toenails and all.

Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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