Generational Gaps

EN ROUTE TO THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS, August 17, 2004 – When fathers (and mothers) love their work, progeny just seem to drift to the same occupation.

In the racing trade many children of drivers go to the tracks early because there’s often no place else for them. It becomes natural for a racer’s kid to love motorsports: it’s fast, it’s fun and it’s dangerous.

In the United States, we’ve had a couple of generations of Andrettis and Unsers (for example) to grow up with over the years and Gen III (with apologies to General Motors for the simile to its stillborn IRL motor) is on the cusp of making marks in big-time open wheel racing.

Mario begat Michael and Jeff and Michael begat Marco Andretti, who just notched the Barber Dodge National Championship at Road America a couple of weeks ago. It sure looks like he’s got the goods and will get a good education from coach Uncle Jeff, his grandfather and his father.

Big Al begat Junior who begat Just Al Unser, now running in the IRL’s Menards Infiniti Pro Series and OWRS’ Toyota Atlantic Championship so he can accumulate just the right amount of open wheel seat time and seasoning before deciding what’s next. Al is getting plenty of appropriate feedback from his father (who spots for him in the Pro series) and grandfather. Uncle Bobby’s children have raced, but not quite at the National level he’d likely hoped for them.

It appears these famous American fathers of prospective race car drivers are doing a bit of a better job of bringing up baby than one former Formula One champions. Letting them be kids and figure out what it is they want to do before tossing these children into the cauldron has been a smart idea.

Then there’s Tomas Scheckter, son of Jody, architect of the last Ferrari F1 title in 1979 before Michael Schumacher came along nearly a decade ago.

Tomas, too, could have been a Formula One driver and, indeed was a test driver for Jaguar but tossed it all away with some extracurricular shenanigans. He came to the USA with a huge chip on his shoulder and joined volatile former F1 driver turned owner, Eddie Cheever Jr. in the Indy Racing League’s IndyCar Series.

This duo’s inability to get along led to Tomas voluntarily leaving Cheever’s team before the end of the 2002 season after 12 of 15 races were completed. He win at Michigan before he departed, but that victory came with a great deal of anger, as Cheever hired Buddy Rice to spur the South African to action. It worked. While with Cheever, Scheckter led 443 laps yet had only two other top-ten finishes to go with his solitary victory.

Scheckter resurfaced with Team Target in 2003, partnered with another 22-year-old, Scott Dixon. Dixon had the advantage of working with Target Chip Ganassi Racing for a bit under a season; both drivers come from racing backgrounds. Dixon won the title with three wins and five MBNA pole positions; Scheckter took two MBNA poles, led another 491 laps but did not find his way to Victory Lane.

There was no doubt Chip Ganassi would replace Scheckter and, when the bright yellow #4 Pennzoil Panther Racing Dallara/Chevrolet ride became available with Sam Hornish Jr.’s departure to Marlboro Team Penske, there was Tomas Scheckter. He was presented to media by co-owner John Barnes as Panther Racing’s next great hope, lauded for his innate talent and speed, along with Scheckter’s ability to dissect technical issues with engineering staff.

Thus far there’s not been another IRL victory for Tomas Scheckter; he hasn’t even come close to the single win secured during the summer of 2002. Where last year and the season prior Scheckter led more laps than seemingly anyone in the IRL’s top echelon, this season the South African hasn’t even done that, leading only 32 laps.

There have been no MBNA pole positions either. All we’ve seen from Tomas Scheckter in 2004 are hits and misses. Not all have been his fault, of course, but they’ve happened. How star-crossed is Tomas’ career?

Will this be Tomas Scheckter’s third strike? What was a winning team over the past four years is now a shell. There is no good chemistry at Pennzoil Panther Racing; it appears all there is right now is oil and water.

A case in point is this past weekend at Kentucky Speedway. Scheckter had an okay couple of practices, semi-okay qualifying (13th of 22 and top Chevrolet) and in the race he bided his time for the first part and then put in his charge, leading nine laps.

On the second round of pit stops, Tomas exited the pits [presumably] before his right-front tire changer gave him the okay. Scheckter pulled the fuel nozzle along with him, spilling invisible methanol on everyone in his pit box and, ultimately in the Dallara and on himself. He made it as far as the pit exit before he unstrapped, rolled around in the grass and pronounced himself unhurt.

The official rationale for this drama was that Scheckter had a slipping clutch and could not stop the car from creeping forward. This same dilemma happened to Dan Wheldon and Vitor Meira earlier in the season. Another theory from a third party (an unidentified IRL official) was that Scheckter incurred a speeding ticket for coming into the pits at 72mph, 12 over the 60mph speed limit. The team finds that absurd; they are normally told about penalties by the IRL.

Jody Scheckter doesn’t often come to the Indy Racing League’s events, but he went to Kentucky Speedway this past weekend for the Belterra Casino Indy 300. It is becoming apparent that Jody puts an inordinate amount of pressure on his young, 23-year-old son to perform.

Living up to Jody Scheckter’s desires just might be too much for Tomas; errors he made in the race after charging to the front in what once was his patented style speak of demands by a difficult father to impress his will upon the child. It’s the same sort of thing we see with young Anthony Foyt, grandson of four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt Jr., who constantly berates PeeWee, grandpa’s nickname for A.J. Foyt IV.

These particular actions make me pleased to see Marco Andretti and Alfred Unser driving in the smaller formulae and working their way up without having relatives chiding them every other minute. These actions also make me wonder what life could have been like for young Tomas Scheckter if he had the ability to grow up before becoming Tomas Scheckter. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.

(c) 2004 Anne Proffit

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