Everything was lined up to be a fairytale year for Scott Speed in 2019. He’d made a shock move from US rallycross’s most dominant team to one that had arguably underperformed in recent years. But he quickly won a race there and was on track for an unprecedented fifth-straight top-level title.
However the former Formula 1 and NASCAR racer was then stopped in his tracks, as he suffered a broken back after overshooting the landing of a small jump at the non-championship Nitro Rallycross event in August.
The seemingly innocuous incident ruled him out of the final two Americas Rallycross rounds, all but handing the 2019 title to former team-mate Tanner Foust.
“It was hard,” Speed tells DirtFish, about watching a certain-looking fifth title disappear out of his grasp. “It ended up being harder because I am a very critical person of myself and I think a lot of my success comes from that, but every tiny little mistake I make, I know it and I’m super hard on myself.
“What was hard for me was being on the sideline and watching other guys screw up and just not being able to do anything about it.”
Speed returned to the track as an onlooker, but watching from the sidelines didn’t come easy for US rallycross’s biggest star.
“I wasn’t the best cheerleader for my team-mates because I was probably too critical and I wish I could’ve handled my position of not being able to drive better,” he says. “I didn’t do a good job of that.
“Standing on the sidelines, watching a guy miss a start or something, I was just so mad, so unhappy watching it all,” he adds with a bit of a laugh. “But I am glad I got to at least be back at the track because at least being around the team was a nice place to be because it is like one big family.”
That big family, the Vermont SportsCar-led Subaru team, became Speed’s home at the end of 2018 after five incredible seasons at the factory-backed Volkswagen Andretti squad which yielded 16 event wins and four consecutive championships.
Subaru meanwhile had managed just one round win in that time, so naturally Speed’s move there raised many eyebrows.
“It was a big risk and a lot of people told me I was crazy to do it, to make that switch,” Speed admits. “There’s great people over at Subaru, amazing people, and once I met everybody, that was a big factor of why I decided to do it.”
While Subaru had steadily improved since introducing the WRX STI during the 2015 Global Rallycross campaign, Speed’s arrival marked a huge upturn in form for the team.
“It was just good timing to come over there because a lot of the stuff that they’d already done was actually really good, and they just didn’t know because they were slow,” Speed says.
“They weren’t even on the podium so there’s always this second guessing, whereas when I came in that car, it was kind of like ‘OK guys, yeah, this is right’ and that’s believable because I just came from the car that just won the last four championships.
“The bottom line is that car is the best car because every part of that puzzle is some of the best people in rallycross in the world, from the guys that make our engines, to the chassis engineers, to the mechanics, to the drivers – obviously I think highly of myself. I think we have just the best package all the way around.”
The championship crown may have been lifted from Speed’s head for the first time since 2015, but he still looks back on the ’19 season fondly.
“We’ve all put our blood, sweat, and tears into this program and it was good to be there, but it was definitely bittersweet because the championship was basically in the bag.
“It was one of the things from my rallycross career that I’m super proud of.
“I believed in the people there and we had a great year.”
With 2019 now firmly in the history books, US rallycross remains in a holding pattern. Not only because of the ongoing COVID-19 situation, but also while the expanded Nitro Rallycross lays its foundations.
When it returns, Speed envisages more of the same from Subaru.
“Yeah, I don’t see that ever changing,” he says when asked if Subaru would remain the benchmark if or when a 2020 season gets underway. “We have too good a people around us, I don’t foresee us not being in that position any time soon.
He also fired a stark warning to the opposition, adding: “I only see that getting better. If anything, this first year, being where we were, was a surprise.
“I know where we’re headed and it’s just going to get harder and harder for people to beat us.”
And as for Speed himself, the words ‘broken’ and ‘back’ carry with them some terrifying baggage, but thankfully, he’ll be back fighting fit when the lights go out once again.
“Yep, [I’m] pretty much fixed. I’d say 95%.
“[It was a] long road, but worth it. We were pretty aggressive with not getting surgery and [that] really caused a lot more pain and suffering in the first, let’s say three months, but now I’m probably better off that I didn’t get the surgery.
“I could 100% show up to the starting line right now and, with one launch, be right back. I’m fully confident of that.”