SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
July 16, 1973
He blew into racing with more speed than style and nobody was surprised at his smashup. But when Jody beat them in a rental car, they started to pay attention
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July 16, 1973

Fastest Rookie On The Road

He blew into racing with more speed than style and nobody was surprised at his smashup. But when Jody beat them in a rental car, they started to pay attention

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Everybody laughed.

Jody shot a game of snooker and won $10, then bought a handful of gum balls from the machine. He slouched in the doorway, chewing mightily, trying to look insouciant. "Let's go up the road and find somebody to pitch quarters with," he said finally. "Last night I won $22 from Hurley Haywood. I suckered him into it right proper." Hurley Haywood is an up-and-coming driver who, with his partner Peter Gregg, wheeled a Porsche Carrera to an $11,000 victory in this year's 24 Hours of Daytona and thus could well afford the sharking. This time, however, Jody tried to con Peter Gethin, a small, pert Englishman who is known as "Peter Rabbit" among the road-racing rabble and who has competed with the best of them in everything from Grand Prix to Can-Am to the low-budget Formula III world, and done fairly well along the way. (Lest this sound confusing, there are almost as many formulas as there are people who race cars, some classified by numbers, others by letters. But no matter what the division, road racing in a variety of machinery is considered the way to the top.)

Jody and Peter Rabbit stood on the sidewalk outside the Grand Prix Lounge of the Jefferson Hotel, readying their quarters for the toss. The idea was to pitch the coin as close to a predetermined crack in the sidewalk as possible. When Gethin wasn't looking, Jody stuck a wad of bubble gum on the underside of his coin. Peter tossed first, and the coin clanked to rest not an inch from the crack. Plenty of bite. But Jody's bite—the bubble gum—merely made his quarter bounce farther away from the target. Gethin walked off with a handful of dollar bills and a grin that seemed more knowingly rapacious than innocently rabbitlike.

"Ah, well," said Jody, "that's the extent of the action, I fear. Let's call it another exciting night on the racing circuit and hit the hay."

Everybody laughed. Jody shadow-boxed and yawned all the way to the car.

Jody is Jody David Scheckter, age 23, of East London, South Africa, the winner of four straight Formula 5,000 races—an impressive string in any kind of motor racing this year—and the hottest prospect for a future world driving championship since Jochen Rindt left the road.

Until this year the racing series for Formula 5,000 cars was a ho-hum affair. This breed of machine was born in 1968 when road racing nuts seized upon the idea of introducing a new class powered strictly by stock-block V 8 engines up to 5,000 cc.—a move that in effect brought regular production engines into competition. Sure, the cars were handsome—long and winged, single-seat, open-wheeled machines that resembled their aristocratic cousins, the Grand Prix cars, in everything but speed. And sponsors, particularly the cigarette people, came running. But the drivers were mainly obscure journeymen whose presence hardly raised the pulse rates of the spectators—men like Gus Hutchinson, Lou Sell, Sam Posey, John Gunn and his name-alike, John Cannon, David Hobbs and Tony Adamowicz. Good drivers all of them, but the kind of men who never quite made it to the big time. As a result, Formula 5,000 racing was much like club fighting back in the days when boxing had clubs. The competitors were tough and ring-wise, scarred veterans who knew all the tricks but who looked back at their youthful successes, rather than ahead at the main chance.

Last year New Zealand's Graham McRae entered the lists, an ambitious and outspoken driver/constructor who came to be known as "Cassius" for his glib, self-laudatory mode of speech, and won the series handily with 87 points and $75,100 in prize money. That signaled a change in the class, a kind of awakening that served to put the series on the verge of the big time.

This season, largely because of Jody, it has come to pass: Formula 5,000 racing is now as exciting as any series in motor sports.

It is Scheckter's string of successes that turned the trick. Of the five races run so far in the nine-event series, he lost only the opener at Riverside—and that one closely, coming in second to Britain's Brian Redman. At Laguna Seca and Michigan during the monetary month of May, while others were drenching and burning it out at Indianapolis, Scheckter won his races going away. And while Redman almost beat him again at the Mid- Ohio event in June, passing him occasionally in the final going, Scheckter ultimately nipped home with another victory.

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