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FASTEST ROOKIE ON THE ROAD
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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Redman is one of the last of the true breed of English racing drivers, a baby-faced, articulate sportsman with a cultured accent and a snob level of zero. "Jody is very, very good," he says of his arch rival on the racing trail. "I raced against him in South Africa a few years ago when he was just getting started. He was running an early Mazda and he had it sideways in every corner, and I said to myself, 'He'll be coming off of the road right about now,' but he never did. It's an eccentric style, Jody's, but he can handle it. I knew back then that he was a good 'un."

Scheckter was born in East London, a slow and simple town on the South African coast between Cape Town and Durban, and came of age in racing within the confines of his father's garage. Thus he shares a heritage with such other garage-owners' sons as world champions Denny Hulme and Jackie Stewart. "I always loved to tinker with engines," he says now. "I played around with go-carts when I was 10 or 11 years old and actually raced in three go-cart races. But then my main interest was the mechanics of it all. When I was 18 I bought myself a saloon car, a stocker you'd say. It was a Renault R-8, and I raced it fairly well in the club events around East London. It started out as a tame sort of machine but I pepped it up. In my second year I took on the national racing series for saloons. By now the car was completely homemade. By the third year I had it supercharged."

South African stock-car racing is much like its American equivalent was back in the Junior Johnson days, backwoods drivers in superquick junk with no holds barred. "There was none of your ordinary concern with clean lines through the corners," Scheckter recalls. "You just dove right in there and pushed the other fellow out of the way. I learned my style—or rather my lack of style—on the saloon trail where it ain't racing if you don't bump 'em."

Scheckter's sudden reputation in South Africa took him to Europe during the 1971 season, when he was scarcely 21 years old, to race in the Formula Ford series, a class that serves Grand Prix racing like midget racing used to serve Indy in this country. His initial successes were limited, however—"I won two or three," he admits grudgingly—but his style was impressive enough to get him a Formula III ride at Silverstone during the preliminary to the British Grand Prix of that year. More than one observer was struck with Scheckter's �lan as he ran away from the pack to win the prelim, going mainly sideways through the corners but somehow miraculously saving himself from humiliation in the off-track cornfields.

Later Jackie Stewart—who won his second world championship that year and who was impressed with Scheckter—was to say: "Jody has it all, the style, the quickness, the hunger, the lust, if you will. He reminds me of Jochen, in style at least if not in temperament." Twice a world champion himself, Stewart was the closest of friends with the late 1970 world champion, Jochen Rindt, and his comparison of Scheckter's driving style with that of Rindt is thus significant. Rindt seemed to seek out eccentric lines through the corners, lines that other drivers could not see but which nonetheless produced very quick times. Scheckter does the same. It is as if his reflexes are superior to those of most men. To take a car sideways is to lose speed, if only by the friction of tires rubbing against the flow of momentum, yet going deeper into a corner at high speed gains a moment on the exit from that same corner. The test lies in the ability of the driver to scrub off speed at the precise instant he reaches the apex of his line, and then get out of that spot without wasting another instant. Rindt did it beautifully, up to the day he died. Scheckter does it beautifully so far.

Not that one could tell it very well by his record with Team McLaren, with whom Scheckter signed to race Formula II cars last season. "I ran 10 races for McLaren," he grumps, "and won only one of them. In the rest we were DNF—we had a lot of trouble with our engines. I also ran the U.S. Grand Prix for them, my first Formula I ride, and actually I raced pretty smoothly." After challenging for second place at one point in the race, Scheckter spun out and ultimately finished eighth. This year he won a spot on the front row for the South African Grand Prix—the Formula I season opener—and led the race for awhile before he blew his engine. And in the French Grand Prix July 1 Scheckter continued to come on strong. He qualified second behind Stewart, jumped right into the lead and headed the field for 42 of the 54 laps before he crashed. "Now folks think I'm some kind of bloody hero," he says, "and they keep coming around asking me for autographs and suchlike stuff. Well, I ain't no hero yet. It's embarrassing to get taken for a hero."

And when he says that, one realizes after all that Jody Scheckter is only a young colonial boy, socially more like 16 than 23. He has been described as brash and arrogant by the racing press, but he is only honest. He is openly distrustful of the commercialism of his sport, which is the most commercial of them all. Of the Germans who staffed his ride in a Porsche 917-10 during the opening Can-Am race at Mosport, Ontario early last month he says: "They are bloody drill sergeants. They want you up at six a.m. and in formation, suited and spiffy, by eight. When I took a slow lap in the Porsche one of them asked loud enough so I could hear: 'Was he with woman last night?' It's bloody ridiculous." Still, he loves the ride in the turbocharged Porsche. The throttle lag that makes the 1,000-hp engine cut in almost two seconds after the accelerator is depressed gives him a distinct kick. "When it comes in, man, you have to lock and counter-lock with the steering wheel, like this"—and he grins joyfully, working his hands a full rotation. Meanwhile his nasal colonial voice takes on strong American overtones. "Wow!"

For all his style and success in the L & M series, Scheckter was still suspect among drivers and fans alike when he arrived at Watkins Glen last month for the fifth race of the championship. He had been driving a new supercar that some said could not be beaten: a Trojan chassis fitted with a Chevrolet 305-cu. in. engine built by British notable Alan Smith. The Trojan design clearly had held up well in the first four races. And during practice at the Glen, after his night on the main drag, Scheckter went out to establish his usual dominance. He had already run the fastest lap of the day, breaking the old qualifying record of 1:45.198 over the 3.377-mile course, but he wanted to do even better. Entering Turn Six he suddenly found himself in trouble. He totaled the Trojan against the catch fence on the outside of the corner.

"I felt a little understeering as I came out of the corner," he said later, gray-faced and worried, "but there was nothing I could do about it right then. The next thing I knew the car was going straight to the fence, and if I could have caught it out of there I would have. But I knew I couldn't. So I locked up the brakes and rode it right into the fence. Horrible feeling. But look at the skid marks—they're straight. None of this sideways business they accuse me of." And with that, Scheckter and crew began bargaining for a fresh car.

At first it looked as if they could get one from Carl Haas, the Lola dealer whose driver, Redman, was second in points to Scheckter in the series. But Haas wanted Scheckter to accept second place if Redman and his Steed Lola were still running at the end of the race, a condition Scheckter could not tolerate emotionally. Redman, too, could not abide the idea of Jody as a putative teammate. "Would Jackie Stewart lend his backup car to Emerson Fittipaldi?" he asked. Redman turned both of his thumbs emphatically down.

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