By Gary Peterson
Bay Area News Group
Scott Speed could have been the poster boy for virility. Not quite 21, he was kicking around Europe and having the time of his life. He was handsome, quick-witted and fit.
Did we mention he was racing cars for a living?
Speed, who was born in San Jose and raised in Manteca, began racing karts at 10. At 18 he was one of four winners of the 2002 Red Bull Formula One driver search. Little more than a year after that he was competing on the F3 circuit overseas.
He made 28 Formula One starts in 2006-07 and appeared in 16 Truck Series races last year (winning one). Today at Infineon Raceway he'll attempt to qualify the Red Bull Toyota for Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR event.
But we're getting ahead of our story. Let's drop it into reverse and punch it — back to the winter of 2003-04, when Speed, it seemed, was about as vibrant as a guy could get without changing his name to Dash Riprock.
And then, suddenly, he wasn't. Ongoing stomach problems came to a head. Speed didn't need a doctor to tell him it was getting serious.
"When I got done using the bathroom there was blood in the toilet," he said Thursday at a Toyota/Save Mart 350 news conference. "I was like, 'That's not good.'"
It got worse. Speed suffered precipitous weight loss and dramatic intestinal symptoms. The diagnosis: ulcerative colitis.
"I had the best physicians in Europe with all of Red Bull's connections," he said. "I was very lucky."
A colostomy was the worst-case treatment option. Fortunately for Speed, he was able to control his condition through less life-altering means. "Diet and medication," he said. "It's different for everyone, though. No stress is good."
And how does this no-stress thing reconcile with Speed's day job? He insists they go together like rubber and asphalt.
"It's not that bad," he insisted. "I'm not in the car getting stressed out. It's more of a calm environment. When you're 9 or 10 years old and you're learning it, it's not like that. But the more you do it, the more calm you are and more logical you get. You have to be (calm). Otherwise you're not making the right decisions."
Speed has made enough good decisions to have recorded three top-20 finishes in 10 starts this year, including a fifth at Talladega. He thinks he might have an advantage at Infineon. It's one of only two road courses on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule, but Speed raced nothing but in Formula One.
"That's certainly an advantage over most of the guys who grow up on ovals," he said. "(Just) as when I go onto an oval, (they) have an advantage over me. It's totally two different kinds of racing. Luckily this one falls into my background. With my background of doing it, we're confident we have a strong package."
These days Speed is part of two teams, both with strong packages. In addition to Red Bull, he has teamed with the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America to raise money and awareness for digestive and intestinal disease. The association kicked into high gear last year when Speed was asked if he wanted to design a T-shirt.
"Me being the NASCAR driver with a sense of fashion, I guess," he said, laughing. "I said sure, so I designed one and they asked what charity I wanted the donation to go to. That was an easy one. We're always doing stuff with the CCFA."
His "Muffin Man" shirt sells for $40, with proceeds going to the Crohn's Foundation. That's a nice move from a guy all too familiar with the course of hard knocks.