How much of big chance was it for Pennzoil Panther Racing to take last fall when the team announced the signing of Tomas Scheckter as their lead driver, taking over the ...
How much of big chance was it for Pennzoil Panther Racing to take last fall when the team announced the signing of Tomas Scheckter as their lead driver, taking over the #4 Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone entry that had been raced to such success in three prior seasons by Sam Hornish Jr.?
Scheckter, 23, the son of 1979 FIA Formula One World Champion Jody certainly understands what it means to "fill big shoes", as being the son of a famous father is never an easy task, particularly when they are in the same business.
Thus far in his Indy Racing League IndyCar Series career, now in its third year, Tomas Scheckter has one victory to his credit. While driving for Red Bull Cheever Racing in 2002, Scheckter won at Michigan International Speedway. He left Cheever's team after the Kentucky race that year, following 12 rounds of dissension.
Scheckter got the rap as a hothead once he left Cheever, but that wasn't enough to dissuade Chip Ganassi from hiring the young man to drive alongside Scott Dixon. Tomas secured two MBNA pole positions in 2003 but no victories, and left Team Target at the end of the year after finishing seventh overall in the championship. It was the first time since he was 11 years old that Scheckter failed to win a race, something he intends to remedy this season.
This could be his best chance to succeed in the Indy Racing League. Pennzoil Panther Racing co-owner John Barnes thinks he made the right choice in hiring Scheckter to drive alongside IndyCar Series rookie Mark Taylor during the 2004 campaign. Thus far the results have been good. Not great, but good.
Scheckter finished fifth in the season opener at 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway the last day of February and was running third when taken out of the Copper World Indy 200 at the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway on March 21st.
"The thing we found with Tomas is he's really brought us to another level," Barnes noted. "His feedback is so incredible." Of course Scheckter has experience as a test driver for the 2001 Jaguar Formula One team that taught him a great deal about dealing with engineers.
Incredibly, Barnes allowed that, "With our other driver in the past, you had to beat him out of trying to figure out what the car was doing." Hornish, one gathers, is a natural shoe, not one who can discuss car tendencies easily with engineers and crew members.
"Tomas has really added a lot. I think he's helped the engine program a lot, worked on the traction control and the launch and the different things that he's been accustomed to in the past. So we just are excited as hell," Barnes admitted.
The Pennzoil Panther Racing brain trust realized, when they learned Hornish was leaving to go to Marlboro Team Penske, "There was one guy that we wanted because he's the guy when we were leading, we were always trying to figure out where he was because he was our biggest threat," Barnes said.
One of Scheckter's great attributes over the past two seasons has been his ability to lead races almost at will. With Red Bull Cheever Racing, despite not finishing the final three races of the year Tomas led 443 laps. At Team Target last year he led 491 laps, including 63 at Indianapolis, where Scheckter finished fourth.
"I think I've got maybe a little more understanding of what to expect" at the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race this year, Scheckter acknowledged. "Obviously, being here with Panther, they've taught me a lot in the two races I've done. I think I've got maybe the best opportunity yet to hopefully try and drink milk at the end of May," he said with a big smile.
The Panther team is very serious about its work and, having added the second car of Taylor - in addition to 10,000 square feet of workspace to their current 40,000-square-foot shop - intends to put Scheckter in the winner's circle as many times as possible this year.
"I think the environment I'm in now, I'm a lot calmer in the car," Scheckter admitted. "The people around me don't necessarily care about leading every lap. They care about leading the last lap and that's sort of taken the pressure off me that I have to prove something or that I have to be in the front." Scheckter led 22 laps in south Florida and none in Arizona. "Everybody around me seems so calm and confident and I think that helps me as well," he noted.
Having Pancho Carter upstairs watching the competition as his spotter surely helps Scheckter work his way around these 16 oval tracks. Carter, as a former driver knows what cars are doing and, as he helps his own sons Dane and Cole up the USAC ladder, Carter understands how to deal with a young, impetuous talent.
Scheckter also has the estimable David Cripps engineering his Dallara/Chevrolet this season, allowing Panther Racing to have Andy Brown oversee both operations. "I've been able to step back and take more of an overall view, try to link the two programs and make sure that we're sharing information between the two cars," Brown agreed.
As the Indy Racing League's senior vice president of racing operations Brian Barnhart continues to find ways to slow the Indy cars, Scheckter and his team aren't complaining too much.
"I think they've done it for safety and I think no matter how fast we all like to go, the most important thing is, at the end of the day we're in one piece," Scheckter opined. "So I have to stand by what the IRL are doing and hopefully their reasoning for their doing it is safety."
He still recognizes that the three engine makers, Chevrolet (with partner Cosworth Racing), Honda and Toyota will do all they can under the 3-liter program that will be tested this Saturday on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway 2.5-mile oval to optimize settings. It's their nature, despite Barnhart's protestations, to make the cars quicker.
"The way these guys develop the cars, when they [IRL] cut the speed, these guys always find it back, you know, in some way or another. Within a year's time [the 3-liter engine] might be pushing the same amount of horsepower just because these guys put so much effort and money into developing things. I think the same with the downforce," he added.
Jumping from team to team usually isn't the optimal way to find Victory Lane or series titles, but Tomas Scheckter appears to have finally found a home in the Pennzoil yellow bullet fielded by Panther Racing. Don't quite call it redemption for the young driver; consider his new relationship synergy.