Secrets of Speed: An all-American rallycross maverick
The path from Formula 1 to rallycrossing a Volkswagen Beetle, via NASCAR’s Cup series and Formula E, is trodden by very few. Well, one person, to be precise.
Scott Speed has always been a maverick, and stuck out like a sore thumb in the European junior ranks on his Red Bull-funded way to F1 with Toro Rosso.
After a bust-up with team boss Franz Tost – “I’m very American, a bit of a cowboy as well!” he admits – his F1 road ended quite abruptly after that bizarre, monsoon-affected European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring (you may also recall Speed was replaced at STR by a certain Sebastian Vettel).
These days, at the age of 35, you’ll find him dominating his domestic rallycross championship. That too has undergone quite some upheaval and reimagining recently, with the IMG-run Americas Rallycross taking over after the Global Rallycross Championship (a misnomer if there ever was one) burnt out. Speed claimed his most recent title at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas with Andretti Autosport’s VW Beetle, a four-round startup series that oddly started at Silverstone in the UK…
“I’ve spent my time in Europe, I’m done with that,” says Speed of his former life. “I’m happy racing here – I love being home, so helping rallycross grow in the States has been great.”
Fast and furious racing
Let’s recall that the origins of rallycross in the late 1960s was to create a made-for-TV motorsport, bringing rally-style cars out of the forests and on to the circuits. To keep it suitable, a short-and-sharp qualifying heat system, leading to finals, was devised – and pretty much continues in this format to the present day.
As attention spans shrink yet further for today’s digitally-led generation, it’s an ethos that really lends itself well – perfect for streaming on YouTube, which is where all today’s kids hang out…
“What gets me is the people who follow it aren’t just the regular car racing guys,” says Speed. “I get met by more kids today who know me from rallycross more than anything – and I thought I’d go through my whole life being known for doing F1!
“Racing in F1 was my biggest accomplishment. But it is cool to see young kids come up to me and say ‘hey, you’re that rallycross guy, I love watching that stuff you do’ – so it’s hitting the youngest demographic, and it can’t do anything but grow, right?”
After his F1 journey, Speed switched to Red Bull’s NASCAR programme and is well versed with the American motorsports landscape. He sees big scope for rallycross to shine there.
“I think, from a motorsports perspective, it’s the only thing that makes sense,” he adds. “I don’t want to watch a four-hour NASCAR race, for example. It’s not just racing, everything is getting shrunk down, to shorter and shorter moments.
“For me, this is the most exciting motorsports. The starts are crazy, the format itself is crazy. The fastest car doesn’t always show up and have an easy time of it. I was the fastest car [at COTA] all weekend, and I was seeded seventh outright! It’s the way it works here.
“That whole uncertainty, the roll of the dice in the heats, is what makes this series so exciting. Starting five-wide is pretty unique, huh?!”
The buzz in rallycross circles right now is the potential for electric motors to help take the genre to the next level, with the lure of major car manufacturer interest. You get the impression VW would certainly like the sport to go in this direction – evidenced by its ID R Pikes Peak record-breaking feat – and the characteristics required by rallycross (rapid-fire races, instant torque demand, etc) certainly plays to an electric motor's strengths.
“I enjoyed the little bit of Formula E that I did, I like the technology for sure,” says Speed. “Does it suit rallycross? Well, they’d be fast. Put electric motors in open-wheel and they’ll be nowhere near an F1 car, but put them in a rallycross car, and I bet you’d be the same pace straightaway, maybe even faster than a combustion engine. From the performance side, I’d say it’s the best form of motorsport for electric to come in and compete – even if it was an open playing field.
“If you could put anything in, to make it the fastest, I’d think that an electric motor could compete with the best in rallycross in a very short amount of time. How that would be implemented, I don’t know. I need to stick to pushing the pedals and steering that wheel!”
Fourth title on the bounce
Speaking of which, Speed nailed his fourth consecutive rallycross title with the Andretti team in Austin, and it seems he’s really found his niche after his NASCAR career fizzled out as a field filler. He’s also one half a formidable Andretti line-up along with top stunt/rally driver/TV presenter Tanner Foust.
“It feels good,” says Speed of his latest crown. “You know, it’s harder when the championship is a little on the shorter side. That presents its own variables, and we didn’t get off to the best start at Silverstone, we had lots of drama and lost points there. But the rest of the season was pretty streamlined, we had a pretty comfortable lead coming into [COTA] – then the heat races here were a total disaster!
“We couldn’t have got more unlucky, we got hit in one, then the rain came and cost us a bunch of points in the other. By the time I got to Q4, I’d lost six of my points lead to Tanner.
“With Tanner starting on the inside, I’m normally confident we get a good start, because our cars launch really well, and I’ve got a quick reaction – but against Tanner, that’s on reaction alone, and that’s a tough task.
“So that launch for me was the best of the entire season. To get the win in Q4, that allowed us to finish the season out with an exclamation point [Speed went on to win the COTA final, having clinched the title in the semis]. I thrive for the pressure moments that decide championships! That’s why I do this, that’s why I love motorsports so much.”
He’s also quick to pay tribute to the Andretti team, which builds and runs the funky-looking Beetles.
“It’s been a great run, we’re a great group and the guys on my car specifically,” Speed praises. “We’re tight, and our chemistry is stronger than most. There’s no question that has influences on outcomes like this. Sure, it’s hard to measure where the tenths of seconds come from, but our unit is so cohesive, and we’ve been together for all four titles.
“I think they’re a huge factor in how you win championships.”
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