Speed still getting adjusted to F1

Rookie U.S. driver encounters trouble in third series race

April 17, 2006|By SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

SAN FRANCISCO --Scott Speed is a skinny 23-year-old from Manteca, Calif., who, standing at the go-cart track above Sonoma County's Infineon Raceway, looked like a lot of other gearheads.

His battered jeans made his worn-out baseball cap look positively pristine. Speed was generous in thanking the people who helped get him where he is.

Where he is sitting these days is near enough to the top of the racing world that he can see it without binoculars. As the first American to race full time in Formula One since Michael Andretti in 1993, he can rub elbows with Michael Schumacher, the driver whose estimated annual income of $81 million puts him behind only Tiger Woods in the world of sports. Unfortunately, Speed is also close enough to practically trade elbows with another Formula One superstar, David Coulthard. The two almost came to blows after the Australian Grand Prix on April 2, the rookie's third race on the world's most glamorous and demanding racing circuit.

On a visit last week to Infineon, Speed explained how he got in trouble with the race stewards in Melbourne. After finishing 13th in Bahrain and 16th in Malaysia, Speed thought he had collected his first point in a Formula One race by finishing eighth. But the stewards later penalized him 25 seconds for passing Coulthard on a caution flag after Tonio Liuzzi had crashed. The penalty dropped Speed to ninth place and cost him the precious point.

Coulthard was telling the stewards his side of the story when Speed told him to "buzz off," or words to that effect. The outburst cost Speed a $5,000 fine.

"I used some profanity toward David," Speed admitted at a news conference. "In return, he started being a bit physical. My mom's raised me to not fight, and therefore a situation didn't arise. But it was a very intense situation, indeed."

He had to accept the decision and move on, he said. But he's not ready for a truce with Coulthard. "I would say the gloves are off," he said. "He was very disrespectful toward me. The fact we have the same parent company, Red Bull [the energy drink], and that we're part of the same family means that eventually things will cool down. As it is right now, there's certainly a lot of tension between us."

Given Coulthard's seniority, Speed said, the meeting was "like taking your teacher into the principal's office and trying to argue a point. Who's going to believe what I say? I'm the rookie."

Speed, whose father was a cart racer, began his open-wheel racing career at the Infineon-based Jim Russell Racing School. He was discovered by the Red Bull people in a nationwide driver search in 2003, and the door to European racing was wide-open.

He celebrated by coming down with a very serious ailment known as ulcerative colitis. He lost 20 pounds, and he didn't have a lot of meat on his bones, anyway.

He was a month away from having his colon removed, an operation that would have ended his racing career. A doctor in Vienna prescribed the right medicine, and he has been symptom-free for more than a year.

Now, he's trying to become completely adjusted to the physical pounding that this level of racing entails. "A Formula One car is so much quicker in the corner and so much quicker in the braking compared to a Champ Car or [Indy Racing League car], it's almost unbelievable when you're sitting in it," Speed said.

Besides the power and complexities of the car, he said, he has to work with a small army of engineers and mechanics. "You're dealing with a team of 50 people at the track working just on your car," he said. "You almost have to have a management role as a driver to get everyone to work together."

He lives in Austria, is learning German and has immersed himself in the culture of Formula One, whose fans, he said, are "many times more" devoted than NASCAR fans are. "It's crazy," he said. "That's why it's the pinnacle."

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