Tomas Scheckter: IndyCar’s Orson Welles, Part 1

Son of 1979 F-1 champion Jody Scheckter and born the next year, Tomas was a meteoric and flawed IndyCar driver during his decade in the series from 2002 – 2011 and man, was he fun to watch. Fearless, exciting and reckless, Scheckter provided paying race fans with a high line, high intensity style of racing that came to define his Orson Welles-like career. When starting out upon the summit, where else is there to go but down?

You didn’t dare take your eyes off the South African during a race and never knew where he’d end up – at the front or in the wall. Outside the car he was fun loving and interesting, a magnetic personality with star power. Unfortunately, he had a high incidence of expensive crashes and also of irritating team owners, but he was always Tomas Scheckter the boy wonder.

TomasSchecktertrackforumcom

Photo from trackforum.com

With two race wins (he ran out of fuel leading another in the final laps), four podium finishes and over half a dozen poles in just over a hundred races, he stood out more for his mad dashes to the front than for always finishing there. Tomas was a driver who “probably should have had … seven or eight wins by now in his career” according to ESPN announcer and former driver Scott Goodyear in 2005, when Tomas was only in his fourth year in the series.

His chops were always worth the price of admission, but for Scheckter the luck rarely broke his way. His winning percentage is higher than several current drivers in the series however, including Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal who both happen to drive for their fathers’ teams. Scheckter’s audaciousness and devil-may-care daring made him a joy to watch in every race despite the overall lack of results. We here at IRR miss Tomas’s unpredictable and edgy contributions to the series and can only lament that they don’t make blockbusters like him or Welles anymore.

orson

Photo from movpins.com

Tomas’s Citizen Kane and one of the great IndyCar stories ever was his first win at Michigan International Speedway as a rookie in 2002. In eye-catching style, Scheckter won an exceptionally entertaining race charging through the field to the front. It was his masterpiece –  among the finest two hours of viewing ever. The behind the scenes reality was even more incredible and truly stranger than fiction.

Reaching speeds over 220 mph, he won by only a few car lengths over brand new Red Bull teammate Buddy Rice, who had started second beside him on pole. On the surface that day Scheckter’s possibilities in IndyCar seemed limitless, as the upstart wunderkind out drove an impressive field – twice. Sadly for Tomas though, he’d never quite be able to top that first heroic role.

Just months into his initial campaign, the 21 year old South African already had clashed repeatedly with his mercurial team owner/driver Eddie Cheever, both of whom had their share of crashes that season. One incident that stands out had Tomas managing to put both himself and his boss into the wall while racing in his usual go for broke manner. Like Orson and his famous fights with studio heads and other giants, Tomas seemed to have a knack for drawing the ire of the most powerful of people.

Events had come to a head between the antagonists prior to that summer afternoon in Michigan by which time Cheever was already in the process of firing the young Scheckter, hence the last minute addition of Rice to the team. Turned out Eddie couldn’t even fire Tomas properly, so instead he was forced to run three cars in the Irish Hills. The entire team had to constantly cope with the boss’s highly improvisational approach.

tomas speed-sportmagazinecom

Photo from speed-sportmagazine.com

To drive his rarely subtle point home further Cheever suddenly made dramatic changes before the race, giving Scheckter’s car and entire team away to newly signed Buddy Rice for his first IndyCar start. This forced Scheckter to use a backup car and worse still a cobbled together crew who’d been out of racing all year – a bunch of no-name actors, if you will.

Not surprisingly the slow, mistake-riddled pit stops during the Michigan 400 demonstrated the crew’s inexperience and cost Scheckter vital time. At one point he chided them over the radio, saying it was their “turn to get to work.” What the peevish Cheever accomplished instead of undermining his driver was making Scheckter’s first IndyCar victory that much more remarkable.

cheevermotorsportcom

Photo from motorsport.com

Scheckter raced Rice and everyone else around him extremely hard and close during that unforgettable 400 miler. Cheever eventually crashed out with no help from Tomas, hitting the wall and causing a yellow. The caution came at the worst possible time for our leading man who had just completed his final stop of the race under green while the rest of the lead pack had yet to do so. His pit crew had been typically molasses-like and the rest of the leaders were able to pit under caution.

As a result he was shuffled to the rear of the field, but fortunately remained on the lead lap. Scheckter had led almost the entire race but now found himself in twelfth place with about thirty laps to go when the green flag flew. Scheckter dramatically passed eleven cars – including Rice driving his old car – within about ten laps to claim the win. The Hollywood ending was breathtaking and Tomas’s race against all odds – including his team owner and teammate – was one for the ages.

tomas MIS toledobladecom

Photo from AP

Watching his Red Bull cars cross the finish line 1-2 from the pits, Cheever was the least pleased team owner whose team had just won a race imaginable. According to motorsport.com Scheckter said after the thrilling victory “I went out very aggressive and pushed every lap. Was on the floor from the beginning, gave no one any room. And I proved myself.” His summation of the race was frank, accurate and pure Tomas.

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