It had been a tumultuous first half-season in IndyCar for Scheckter, especially those chaotic days leading up to his epic victory in Michigan. Fired by Cheever – who didn’t last long as an owner – Scheckter eventually drove for nearly a dozen different IndyCar teams, sometimes several in a single season. His career stalled as the shadow of his incredible initial triumph loomed largely, negatively affecting his fortunes thereafter.
Later in his career it became a scrum for funding, a tough grind like most drivers and even some Hollywood geniuses encounter sooner or later. As a result, the art suffered and starring appearances became fewer and further between. Unlike other legacy drivers Tomas’s father didn’t own an IndyCar team. Most of his former teams either no longer exist or have changed radically, as has the series itself.
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Scheckter had one more brilliant leading role in him, though. He returned to victory lane in 2005 for Panther Racing under the lights before a fairly packed house at Texas. His second win was Tomas’s The Third Man, an overlooked and underrated gem of a performance coming years after his first. This was back when there were three engines competing in the series and Danica raced as a rookie sensation, a golden age in IndyCars. Danica-mania raged nationwide and brought much needed though controversial attention to the series – or at least to one driver – as you may recall.
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The Texas race immediately followed the late Dan Wheldon’s memorable first Indianapolis 500 win – the same 500 Danica briefly led. As a result, Danica-mania had reached pop-concert pre-teen scream pitch. She led several laps making history, but many forget about her earlier spin that collected both Scheckter and his Czech teammate Tomas Enge, ruining their respective races. Danica suffered little damage and went on to finish fourth in her first 500, to the amazement of many.
Starting from pole in Texas and looking to regain the lost limelight, Tomas took the checkers after once again being forced to overcome numerous problems in the pits. For Tomas to win, it wouldn’t have been believable without some theatrics. Fittingly it was another edge of your seat type of race, an exhilarating, enthralling show. It couldn’t quite match that thriller in the lower peninsular three years earlier, but then again what could?
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For Tomas it was a needed shot of redemption, some box office success. An underdog, he was always someone you wanted to root for, to see succeed. On that night he did. “Thomas Scheckter has exercised the demons tonight” ESPN announcer Todd Harris declared as he beat Sam Hornish, Jr. to the line in an extremely close finish. Characteristically for Tomas, it was the first race the streaky South African had finished all year.
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In a post race interview on ESPN2, Panther principle John Barnes excitedly reacted to Tomas’s only win with his team. “He’s a helluva driver. We’re gonna . . . party all night!” Danica ended up finishing 13th, well behind her media hype. Sound vaguely familiar? On stage in victory circle a humble Scheckter credited his team and Chevy power plant, saying “American Revolution, baby. . . . Thank them a lot.”
The Texas win came amidst the usual adversity, as Ed Carpenter ran over one of Tomas’s hoses on his first pit stop and he had to overcome some other slow stops as well. Like Michigan, the pit crew’s poor supporting performance only served to make Tomas’s starring role shine brighter. Tortoise-paced pit crews and rotten luck seemed to be defining traits of his career, but on that night he was able to overcome them both.
Losing a ton of track position again during his final stop at the high banked oval, the plot twist was exquisite. Scheckter had to contend with antagonists Hornish, Jr – a two time winner at Texas – and Castro-Neves in addition to the always tough Tony Kanaan. As if in flashback to his previous win Scheckter battled and speedily overtook them all to regain the lead of the race, holding onto it despite several contentious challenges right to the end credits.
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The Texas win came in one of the sharpest paint schemes of all time – the platinum colored Pennzoil car – which positively popped under the lights. We wonder how many people missed the highly entertaining race on ESPN2 that Saturday night, when Thomas stormed into the lead for the final time during a side by side “30 at 30” break with less than fifteen laps to go. Clearly many critics weren’t pleased with the absence of a leading lady on stage, but the paying fans roared their approval.
Texas Motor Speedway was the final curtain call for Scheckter, as thereafter he bounced around from team to low budget team as often as some drivers change fireproof suits. He secured some funding on his own and spliced together programs here and there, but he never again got a shot with one of the big teams after Panther. The on screen results suffered.
His record on the grandest stage of them all was decent, earning co-rookie of the year honors in 2002 – shortly before Cheever wanted him gone – and leading over a hundred and fifty laps at Indianapolis during his career. However, he would also crash while leading the 500 and a couple of other times as well. Victory in the big one always eluded him as it has most others who’ve raced there. His best finish of fourth came in his second race in 2003 for Ganassi, with Tomas as always feeling he had something to prove. In over half a dozen more attempts he never equaled that sophomore showing.
We hope he’s doing well and wish more genius-level talent like Scheckter would come along to IndyCar. Tomas was always riveting and compelling to watch race, adding something special merely with his larger than life presence in the field. We miss him and his crazy-brave racing skills. Like the late great filmmaker Orson Welles, the world could use more talented, defiant, risk-taking characters like him.