INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, April 12, 2002 - Indianapolis 500 rookie Tomas Scheckter doesn't have to look far to find someone he'd like to emulate in American open-wheel racing. Of course, there is his boss and driving teammate Eddie Cheever Jr.
INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, April 12, 2002 - Indianapolis 500 rookie Tomas Scheckter doesn't have to look far to find someone he'd like to emulate in American open-wheel racing.
Of course, there is his boss and driving teammate Eddie Cheever Jr. But Scheckter is only 21 and wants to explode up the racing ladder quickly, so Sam Hornish Jr. has become an obvious inspiration to the bright newcomer from Cape Town, South Africa.
Hornish, only 447 days older than Scheckter, already has won the Indy Racing League championship and leads the points after three races this year. He's won five races in just 24 starts.
"He's done an unbelievable job; I'm here to beat him," said Scheckter Friday after rain halted the annual Rookie Orientation Program practice.
"Each race I got better and better. The last race I was leading my first race with him. That's my goal, to win. If it's (Helio) Castroneves, (Gil) de Ferran, whoever it is, I have to do the best job I can do. My main goal is to win races."
Scheckter, driving the No. 52 Red Bull Cheever Indy Racing Dallara/Infiniti/Firestone, led five times for 28 laps in the Yamaha Indy 400 March 24 at California Speedway in only his third career Indy Racing start. However, an incident with Japanese rookie Hideki Noda removed him from the race after 163 laps.
Scheckter's youthful aggressiveness nearly cost him his ride with Cheever after his first race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 2. Scheckter charged up on his employer's car early in the race, bumped Cheever's wheel in passing and sent the veteran into the wall.
After the race there was a heated confrontation between Cheever and Scheckter.
"You know, it was a bad thing, but it helped our relationship with the team," Scheckter said. "The team had to do a lot of work to get the cars back together. There was a lot of stuff. The team was set back quite a bit. It was an unbelievable job getting everything back together.
"And I think it has helped Eddie's and my relationship. We're really a lot closer. We have a lot better understanding. I think on the track as teammates we work unbelievably well together, as we did at Fontana."
Scheckter, son of 1979 World Champion Jody Scheckter, tested privately at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway a few days before the beginning of ROP. Chief mechanic Owen Snyder III has been impressed with his young driver.
"We ran a hundred laps the other day," Snyder said. "From the 100 laps of testing, we got all the normal feedback from him. He talked about how he drove each corner. It was like he had run here before.
"Eddie helped him a lot. It is the perfect two-driver team."
Scheckter hit 222 mph early in the test and then he and the team were able to work on setups for the track.
"Today, (I got in) about 10 laps just trying to get this orientation over," he said. "I understand exactly why they do it. I think it's a good thing. We're just trying to get it over with as soon as possible and start testing the car again."
Indy speeds that will most likely be faster than Scott Sharp's 2001 pole-winning speed of 226.037 mph are of no concern to Scheckter.
"Speeds don't really scare me," he said. "I've never had a problem with speeds. Even after the crash at Homestead, I got sent out and qualified third (also finished sixth). It was a 190-mph crash, and I qualified third. Maybe I'm too stupid to realize what speeds I'm doing. I'm not sure which one it is."
Scheckter didn't grow up worshipping the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the shrine of speed. He thought Formula One and the Monaco Grand Prix were the ultimate goals in auto racing. He lived in Monaco for four years while his dad was racing, but later returned to South Africa to complete his schooling.
"I broke into Formula One," he said. "There were options for me, and one of the options was to come here. I had a test and went very quick. I had a good relationship with the team.
"I made my mind up after that first test that's what I wanted to do. I mean, there's still options for me in Europe at the moment. But at the moment, I think this is best for me and I'm going to do that down here in America."
The last two Indy 500s have been won by "rookies," though both were older and had more oval-racing experience than Scheckter. Juan Montoya won in 2000 and moved on to the Williams team in Formula One. Castroneves brought Roger Penske his 11th career victory as a car owner last May and returns this year to defend his championship.
Scheckter hopes to keep the rookie victory streak going.
"I want to," he said. "That's the plan I've got for every race, trying to win it.
"It just helps when you've got a good team and a good sponsor. We've got a good engine, Infiniti. It just helps that I'm not only a rookie, I'm a rookie in a very good position. That gives me a chance to win races."