Lake Speed made the broadest leap in class possible in motorsports, with the exception of the 18-wheelers in New Zealand.
Speed, a native of Jackson, Miss., worked his way through the karting ranks before making the jump to what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
He completed the ultimate in the little cars – he is still the only non-European to win the World Karting Championships, with his title coming in 1978 at Le Mans against such opposition as Ayrton Senna, who went on to win three Formula One World Championships.
Speed was ready for the next step.
“I had a contract in hand to run the series just below the Indy cars,” Speed said. “Then some stock car people came into my life. When I got in a stock car, it was so different, so weird. That became the challenge. Stock cars weighed 3,800 pounds and had the aerodynamics of a brick. I think that’s the biggest leap there is.”
Speed made four consecutive starts in the Brickyard 400 from 1994 to 1997. He qualified third in 1996. Speed led seven laps combined in his four starts.
“It was a dream come true for any driver to go to Indianapolis,” Speed said. Not many racers get that opportunity. He had a unique first memory of the Speedway.
“My first impression was that it was big,” he said. “The first time I went down the front straightaway at 200 miles an hour, you look like you re going down a canyon. You know, (the first turn) is there, but you can’t see it. After you go through it one time, it’s OK, but it was a little edgy.
Speed remembers the 1996 Brickyard 400 the most, the year he qualified third and led two laps in the SPAM Ford.
“Anytime I think about Indy, I think of that particular race,” he said. “I qualified third and passed Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon on the front straightaway to take the lead. We were a small team, but we knew we had a fast car.
Speed made it to the top of NASCAR despite his home state, Mississippi, not being a hotbed of racing.
“There were a few tracks, but I don’t think there are any pavement tracks there,” Speed said.
The current occupation for Speed, now 65 and residing in Charlotte, N.C., is a story in itself.
“I’m doing something I’ve always done that nobody knew I was doing,” he said. “I was in the commercial real estate business. My dad never approved of racing, so we always kept the real estate business going.
“I started racing when I was 12 years old. My dad took me to the track the first time but never watched a race. My mom watched me in a stock car race. I had brothers and sisters who were big supporters, but my parents weren’t into that.”
Speed doesn’t come back to Indy to watch races or visit old friends.
“I’m not a very good spectator,” Speed said. “When you watch through the windshield, nothing can come close to it.”