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Speed ready to carry long-absent American flag into F1

Back in 1993, two drivers embarked on totally isolated major new steps of their racing careers. Now, 13 years later, their paths have crossed.

Michael Andretti signed to drive for the McLaren Ford team in Formula One in 1993. It was not, as has been documented, a happy time. He was in the wrong team at the wrong time, and things just didn't work out.

After Andretti finished third in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, the same track where his father Mario clinched the World Championship in 1978, Michael and McLaren parted company. Michael Andretti's 13 Grand Prix starts in 1993 marked the last time a driver from the United States competed in F1.

Also back in 1993, a 10-year-old kid by the name of Scott Speed was beginning his competition career racing go-karts in his native California. His goal was to race in F1.

Thirteen years later, Speed is set to make his F1 racing debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso. When he accelerates away from the grid at the start of the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday, he will go into the record books as the first American Grand Prix driver since 1993.

In those intervening 13 years, F1 teams have tended to shy away from American drivers and American drivers have tended to shy away from F1.

One of the things Speed hopes to do, and indeed already has done, is prove that American drivers can hack it in F1 and at the top levels of racing in Europe.

"It has definitely been very difficult to change the perception of American racing drivers in Europe ever since I first got here," Speed said. "I can say, fortunately, as far as how I'm perceived by my colleagues, the other racing drivers and the people that are at the racetrack, the opinion of American racing drivers has definitely changed in the last three years after the success of myself and my other junior teammate, Colin Fleming, have had in Europe."

Speed and Fleming are two of the leading lights of the Red Bull Driver Search, a scholarship program that was created to groom young drivers on the path to F1.

To recount Speed's upward climb on that path briefly: Racing in Europe, he was hobbled severely by an illness in 2003 but came back in 2004 to win championships in the German and Eurocup Formula Renault series with a dozen wins and 22 podium finishes. In 2005, he placed third in the new GP2 series, where he had five podium finishes, a pole and five fastest race laps and finished in the points on seven other occasions.

Now, Speed has graduated to F1. It's great news for American F1 fans who have waited 13 years to cheer for one of their own drivers. But why so long a wait?

"I'd say lack of opportunity," Speed said. "For myself, personally, I didn't come from a family who had a lot of money and was able to pay for a season of racing and living in Europe. So without Red Bull's help, I wouldn't be here.

"I think that this is the case for most American kids who grow in karting. To make the move, not only financially but emotionally -- changing your whole life and move to Europe -- it's a very, very big commitment. I think a lot of kids just never get the opportunity. Actually, I know a lot of kids that are in kart racing or who've definitely got the talent, but just don't have the opportunity to come to Europe to partake in the junior championships that you need to run in to reach F1."

Ironically, if being an American generally was not an asset to get into F1 during the past decade, it was definitely an advantage for Speed. Red Bull wants an American driver in F1 to raise awareness and sales of its energy drink. But one must remember that, of the hundreds of hopefuls who applied to the Red Bull program, Speed came out on top.

That said, if Speed can't hack it in F1 (which is something the Red Bull racing folks are sure will not be the case), he won't be invited back just because he is an American.

As the first American in F1 in 13 years, and as an F1 rookie no matter what his nationality, Speed will be under a lot of pressure this year. On the other hand, it's going to be easier for him than it was for Andretti.

Andretti arrived as a former CART champion and drove for a team where wins and podiums were expected. Speed's season will run on a much lower profile and low-key basis because he is with what is basically the former Minardi team.

True, with the extra investment from Red Bull, the Toro Rosso team can step up its performance, but it is still a small team. Minardi drivers, even a rookie named Fernando Alonso whose best finish was a 10th back in 2001, rarely if ever finished in the points. So Speed isn't expected to be up there on the podium spraying the champagne.

This will be very much a learning year for Speed.

"With Scuderia Toro Rosso being one of the smaller teams, it's going to be a good way to get my feet into F1," Speed said. "And after the first year, we really start to set our expectations higher."

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.