When the X Games headed to Brazil for the first of three international events it planned for 2013, the rallycross competition featured one standout name on the entry list.
Scott Speed was a proven circuit racing driver – Formula Renault titles, a third-place run in the 2005 GP2 series, and stints in Formula 1 and NASCAR. He wasn’t a rallycross driver though. But he was about to embark on a new, career-defining adventure.
After being approached at a NASCAR Cup race at Bristol, Speed was asked to race Global Rallycross’s ‘Star Car’ in Brazil. The Star Car was set to be driven by a different big name at each round of the 2013 GRC season, but Speed’s debut went so well that it became his own.
“To be fair I said ‘heck yeah I want to try it’ before I knew anything about it,” Speed tells DirtFish of his decision to go racing at the X Games, “then I watched some rallycross races and thought ‘Oh God there’s a jump? What is this?’ and immediately started freaking myself out.
“At that time I was pretty friendly with [Travis] Pastrana and all the advice I got for that race, driving-wise, was from Travis, and then it was just a typical race – you just have to adapt quickly. It was something that I was able to do that weekend I guess.
“It’s such a memorable time for me, it’s one of the most memorable weekends of my career. It’s like the first time I ever drove an F1 car. All the firsts, I remember them clearly because you have these ideas in your mind of how it’s going to be, and all this anticipation.”
Speed initially chose to watch from the wings as the more experienced rallycross runners got to grips with Brazil’s dusty track at Foz do Iguaçu, but when the time came to get behind the wheel himself, the NASCAR Truck series race winner wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence.
“I didn’t go out at the beginning,” Speed recalls, “I wanted to watch from the stands to get a feel for what the cars look like because I’d never even seen one race before, I didn’t know what it was going to look like.
“And I’m watching it, and I’ll never forget watching Travis come through the last corner, which was pretty dang narrow and there was the wall on the outside, a wall on the inside and it’s all dirt and he’s like 45-degrees sideways through there. And I’m like ‘oh God! I don’t think I can do that, but we’ll see’.”
Additionally, right before Speed went out the track was watered, meaning that the course he was taking to was nothing like the one he’d been watching for reference.
“I get into my car, I get in line, and little do I know, right before I go out the water truck had been out on the track watering the dirt,” Speed continues. “And as I learned very quickly in my rallycross career, wet clay is extremely slippery.
“So I head out of the pits, I start driving around, and I’ve got the worst understeer on the planet and I feel like I am literally crawling around the track, but in my mind I just saw these cars go and I thought ‘well jeez I definitely can’t do this because I don’t know how they’re doing this’.
“I’m so slow and I literally did two laps and I just come right back in the pits and I’m like ‘guys, it’s better if I just sit here until qualifying because if I don’t, I’m probably just going to crash because I am out of control. I cannot make this car do anything’.”
After a pep talk from crew chief Brad Manka, Speed returned to the now-bedded-in track, and instantly there was improvement. Big improvement.
“All of a sudden the track was a lot better,” Speed says. “I was just trying to keep the thing on the apexes and trying to find where the grip was. I was very good at finding where the traction was in all the corners, and you needed to be really tight to the apex to be in the grip. And if you missed it by even a couple of feet you were slipping and sliding a lot.
“So I do that [on the] next run and Brad’s like ‘oh my God dude you’re the fastest guy out there’. In my head I thought that I needed to be all sideways like Pastrana and just full tire spin everywhere and that’s not what it needed to go fast.
“I just lucked into that because basically my first time round the track, just getting to know the car and getting to know the grip levels, that ended up being the right way to drive a car on a track with that kind of dirt. And it still is. But the way it all worked out was extremely… it was fortuitous for sure.”
Speed took a top-three place in the seeding round, then won his heat to begin the final on pole.
After a messy first start which claimed the likes of Tanner Foust, Ken Block, and Last Chance Qualifier winner Buddy Rice, the final properly got underway with Speed being swamped by Toomas Heikkinen and Brian Deegan at the start. Deegan ran wide however, allowing Speed to slot into second ahead of Steve Arpin.
Arpin opted to take the joker – a shorter route in this particular event – on lap two in a bid to overhaul Speed, but it was to no avail. Heikkinen meanwhile had taken his joker on the opening lap and was still in the lead.
Joker strategy proved crucial for Speed, who with his ultra-clean driving style was able to remain right on the bumper of Heikkinen, who was driving the latest specification Ford Fiesta ST as opposed to the year-old one raced by Speed and Arpin.
Going into the final lap Speed had still yet to take his joker, and he timed its deployment to perfection to get by Heikkinen to win on his first rallycross appearance. Heikkinen followed him home in second while Patrik Sandell passed Arpin late on for third. It was an all-Ford podium, with each of the top-three drivers first-time medalists at the X Games as well.
Speed remained in the Star Car for the rest of the 2013 GRC season, winning again in Charlotte. The impressive debut campaign earned him a call up to the new Andretti Autosport-led factory Volkswagen team, where he would go on to firmly etch himself into rallycross folklore over the following few years.
But at the time of the triumph in Brazil, Speed wasn’t exactly thinking of a full-time career in rallycross.
“No, [but] I thought I had a blast doing it,” he says.
“When I did the X Games Brazil race I thought ‘well s***, I have this down. No problem’. Because a rallycross car on that type of dirt you drive pretty similar to how I naturally think about it.
“I was very very rudely awakened to drive a car on gravel in the Munich X Games [the next round], and I was like two seconds off and I was like ‘oh gosh, this is not working how my brain sees it’.
“And so for the next five years I basically had to learn how to be a rally driver, which is completely different to how my natural instinct took over.
“If Brazil X Games was at Munich, at that gravel track, I would never be in rallycross right now because I sucked and I would’ve thought that I could’ve never figured it out. But because Brazil was on a clay dirt track and that you have to run a lot more similar to Tarmac, then it worked out and here I am in rallycross.”
Fast forward seven years and Speed, now with Subaru, is one of the world’s top rallycross talents – 19 wins in four different cars and four straight titles. He may have came from wildly different beginnings, and his debut might’ve been intended as a one off, but he’s now the undisputed king of rallycross in the US.