Monday, January 10, 2011

What Ever Happened To . . . Speed Racer?

By the time Speed Racer was five years old, he was already an accomplished go-kart racer.  He also had quite the knack for making exquisite pottery, however, that was a skill that was looked upon with disdain by his father Pops Racer.  When Speed turned fourteen, to appease his dad, he sold his potter's wheel and kiln in order to purchase a kit for a kick-ass Ferrari 250 Testarossa.

Speed joined the Ameri-National Racing Circuit in 1988 at the age of eighteen.  Over the next fifteen years, under the guidance of his crew chief Sparky and with the able assistance of pit crew members Spritle and his chimpanzee Chim-Chim, Speed won twelve circuit championships and became known as one of the great racers of all time.  His Ferrari, also known as the Mach Five, was equipped with all sorts of special gadgets, including auto jacks, cutter blades, belt tires, and the much-admired "frogger mode" which allowed the Mach Five to leap over obstacles and opposing drivers.  These modifications, while not specifically banned by the ANRC, fell within a certain "gray area" and as a result, the other race teams had little respect for Speed and often made a point of trying to take him out of races with aggressive driving or by kidnapping his girlfriend Trixie.  Whatever worked.

By 2003, Speed had become bored with the ANRC, and was quoted in Auto Racing Digest saying, "I think I've achieved all I can at this level.  I mean, I've won twelve straight titles, set seventeen track records, what else is there to prove?  I think Sparky and I, and the rest of the Racer Motors team, need to find out what we can do on a bigger stage."

So in 2004, Speed Racer joined the NASCAR circuit, taking over the Hendrick Motorsports #5 car.  Owner Rick Hendrick said at the time,  "We're thrilled to have Speed Racer aboard.  We've been aware of his career for several years now, and having a kid with this kind of talent is something we're all excited about.  We're going to let him stick with Sparky as his crew chief and we look forward to seeing what both of them can do in the Nextel Cup (now Sprint Cup) Series."

Speed takes out the field at Daytona
As it turned out, Speed wasn't quite as talented as everyone at Hendrick had been led to believe.  Since the Mach Five did not meet any of the specifications required by NASCAR, Speed had to drive one of Hendrick's Chevys and this presented some problems.  Speed had come to depend on the Mach Five's special features to get out of trouble on the race track, and as a result, his driving skills weren't up to par with the other drivers.  No longer able to press a button and vault over the opposition, Speed caused numerous wrecks, and gained a reputation as a dangerously aggressive driver.

According to NASCAR veteran Mark Martin, "This guy is gonna kill somebody if he doesn't get his act together.  Don't misunderstand, I like the kid, but where did he learn to drive a race car?  He's hitting everything out there -- other cars, the wall, heck, at Dover he took out two concession stands and an RV.  He's gonna have to figure this out pretty quick or there's gonna be some problems."

Speed crashes at Talladega, 2004
During the 2004 Nextel Cup season, Speed did not finish 33 of the 36 races.  Twenty of his DNF's were due to wrecks, twelve were caused by engine failure, and in one race Speed fell thirty laps behind and simply drove the #5 car off the track mid-race and went to Burger King.

Losing wasn't a concept that Speed and Sparky were familiar with, nor was it something they were willing to accept.  Their frustration came to a head at the 2005 Daytona 500, when Sparky decided to modify Speed's #5 car with all the old Mach Five accoutrements.  Cutter blades, frogger mode, and as a new touch, twin rocket launchers mounted under the splitter on the front end.  Speed kept the Kellogg's car in the top ten for most of the afternoon, and late in the race he vaulted over Tony Stewart's Home Depot Chevrolet and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s #8 Budweiser car to take over second place.  Late in the race, he made his move.

Johnson escapes after Speed's missile hits the 48 car.
With ten laps to go in the race, Speed's Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson had the lead but Speed closed the gap quickly.  The two drivers battled it out with Speed threatening but unable to get by the savvy Johnson.  When the white flag came out signaling the final lap, Speed dropped back about six car lengths and activated the rocket launcher.  As Johnson entered turn two, his #48 Lowe's Chevrolet was struck by a rocket, causing the rear end of the vehicle to burst into flame.  Johnson managed to escape the vehicle without injury, but his chance of victory had gone up in smoke.  Speed Racer took the checkered flag but was immediately disqualified and permanently banned from NASCAR.  Not only that, when Speed pulled into his pit stall after the race, he was met by Jimmie Johnson's entire pit crew who beat the shit out of him with an assortment of lug wrenches and power tools, removed both of Speed's nipples via air-powered impact wrench, and Johnson himself cracked Speed in the jaw with a rubber mallet normally used to repair dented fenders.  Later, in the emergency room, doctors removed eight lug nuts from Speed's rectal cavity.

He was blackballed by the entire racing community.

In 2010, ESPN featured Speed Racer on an installment of their investigative series "Outside the Lines".  Here is a partial transcript of Bob Ley's interview with the beleaguered driver: 

Bob Ley: Speed, what events led to the unfortunate incident at the 2005 Daytona 500?

Speed Racer: It was a lot of things, but mostly an inability to cope with failure.  I grew up in the shadow of my brother Rex, but in spite of that I had a lot of success early on.  NASCAR was supposed to be a chance for me to blossom, and really make a name for myself.  But I lost, I lost a lot.  Without the Mach Five, I was nothing.  It was hard to handle.

Bob Ley:  NASCAR is a big step for any driver, no one has success immediately.  Most young drivers take time to get acclimated to the higher level of competition.  It seemed like you and your team expected to win right away, and when you didn't, you resorted to -- for lack of a better word -- cheating.

Speed Racer: What, like Jimmie Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus never cheated?  Knaus got suspended for four races not too long ago for illegal modifications to the 48 car.  Everybody tries to get an edge.

Bob Ley:  Knaus was suspended because the 48 car didn't meet the specs in a post-race inspection.  That's a little bit different than having rocket launchers installed, wouldn't you say?[1]

Speed Racer: You say tomato . . .

In July 2010, Speed Racer moved to Houston and opened a car dealership called Racer Hyundai.  His wife Trixie works in sales, and Sparky manages the parts department.


[1] For the record, Chad Knaus himself never complained about Speed's tactics.  In fact, not too long after the 2005 Daytona incident, Knaus was seen trying to attach similar rocket launchers to the 48 car.  Owner Rick Hendrick talked him out of it.


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7 comments:

Eva Gallant said...

another great "What ever happended to ?" You are a genius at those!

Suldog said...

Well, I always had the feeling Speed would end up where he did, but you left one burning question unanswered: What became of Chim-Chim?

Uncle Skip, said...

I can't say I miss him. Who is he?

Chris@Knucklehead! said...

Really, Uncle Skip? Cartoon? 1970's? Mach Five?

Not ringing a bell?

YouTube, my friend, YouTube.

Uncle Skip, said...

The '70s... that explains it. Somehow I lost the '70s.

Mariann Simms said...

I have to admit - I always did wonder about a guy who hung out with a monkey.

paxillated said...

Yes, it's a year old, but I can't resist...

After the first paragraph, i was hoping he'd open a pottery studio, and "come out of the closet."

And, I was a Speed Racer fan in the '60s. by the way, what ever happened to Astro Boy?

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