Scheckter focused on finishing strong

Originally Published: June 16, 2005
Associated Press

Tomas Scheckter always has been a fast driver, running with the front pack and leading 1,145 laps during his four IndyCar seasons.

The problem for the young South African during his promising, but tumultuous, career has been getting to the finish line consistently.

Scheckter's first five races in Texas were a microcosm of his career. Twice a polesitter and a leader of 252 laps at the 1-mile, high-banked track, he never finished a race there (two accidents and three mechanical failures) and his best showing was 15th.

Then, last weekend, Scheckter earned another pole at Texas. He led 119 of 200 laps and won ahead of Sam Hornish Jr., the two-time IndyCar Series champion he replaced at Panther Racing after the 2003 season.

"We've proved it to ourselves now we can do it. Now it's just a case of doing it week in and week out," Scheckter said. "Hopefully, we're a threat at every race after this."

The only way to do that is to finish races.

Scheckter has led 19 different races, but has been running at the end in just 23 of his 50 career races -- with 20 accidents. Of the 13 active full-time IndyCar drivers who have more than 25 races, Scheckter is the only one with a finishing rate of less than half and only two others are under 70 percent.

Since joining Panther, his third IndyCar team, Scheckter has finished just eight of 22 races. He's had four accidents in six races this year, after five accidents last season when his only top-10 finish was his Panther debut (fifth) at Homestead, Fla.

Still, Panther officials haven't considered a driver change.

"Ask anyone that watches races week in and week out, they'll tell you he's the most exciting guy to watch," Panther co-owner John Barnes said.

"We went through last year where we all had bad luck," co-owner Doug Boles said. "Some of the problems we had were self-inflicted, other problems were just dumb luck that we couldn't do much about."

Despite problems getting to the finish line even when starting in the front half of the field all season, Boles said there are positive signs Scheckter is maturing as a driver.

During the race at Japan, Scheckter told Barnes over the radio that he had figured out he didn't have to try to push things until the closing laps. While he ended 10th after leading 47 laps, Boles said it was an "almost monumental change in Tomas' thought process."

Then, at the Indianapolis 500, Scheckter took the same approach. His departure from the race with 46 laps left wasn't entirely his fault -- he went into the inside wall trying to avoid a collision between Danica Patrick and his Panther teammate, rookie Tomas Enge.

Even while ahead of the field most of the Texas race, he was patient at times when he had to work back into the lead.

"I would have liked to have matured a little bit quicker, especially how many races that have slipped away," said Scheckter, the 24-year-old son of 1979 Formula One champion Jody Scheckter.

"For sure when you're at the end of the race, you're still mentally very strong," he said. "If you push very much from the beginning, you sort of get to the end of that race, you're mentally starting to tire, where it's almost like an athlete."

Scheckter's racing experience was mostly on road courses in Europe until Eddie Cheever Jr. hired him in 2002. He quickly passed his IndyCar rookie test and had the fastest speed during testing in just his second day on an oval, but it would be a contentious relationship.

In his IndyCar debut, Scheckter went into the wall and took the car of his still-driving owner with him. There were three poles and even a win at Michigan, but also plenty of damaged cars before Scheckter left Red Bull Cheever Racing with three races left in 2002.

The next season with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, he had three accidents the first five races before finishing 11 of 16. He was seventh in season points, then hired by Panther when Hornish went to Marlboro Team Penske.

Now Scheckter is getting a chance with Panther to change the perception of being an undisciplined and impatient driver. Winning at Texas was a big step.

"This is what I really needed. The whole team needed it. I needed it for my morale," he said. "I think certainly after this, we're definitely going to take a different attitude going into the races."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press