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
July 15, 1973

The race was still way off—two days and three long nights to be exact. Plenty of time to kill. They swept into town in a dirty maroon Buick, complaining idly to one another about the emission control system that rendered the engine sluggish as a turtle, but still keeping their eyes peeled for speed traps, and wondering if the local X-rated double feature would be worth it: Indian Raid and Indian Made. Seneca Lake gleamed off to their left, long and cold in the evening light, and Jody said he would like to try a spot of fishing but he had this bloody stuffed nose and he had eaten up all his antibiotics already and it wasn't worth the bloody risk. "It's hard enough to race when you're healthy," he said, yawning. Everybody laughed.

They parked on Franklin Street, the main drag of New York's Watkins Glen, and ambled up the cracked sidewalk past the blank shopwindows. Jody walked with his customary gunfighter's slouch, his spine bent like a slightly flattened S. Now and then he shadowboxed, grunting and mumbling to himself. A pair of teeny-boppers skittered past with their eyes averted. Once they were safely by, the girls giggled madly and broke into a delicate, wobbly-kneed sprint. Jody watched them go with a flat, appraising look in his dull green eyes. "My fiancée's coming out from South Africa in a couple of weeks," he said. "She keeps me in line." Everybody laughed.

They went into a sandwich shop, a clean well-lighted place that offered subs and wedges and hot Italian sausage. Also a pool table, a pinball machine and an electronic racing game. Jody had tried the racing game the night before but crashed on the first lap. He walked past it now without a sideward glance and asked the fat girl behind the counter: "Where's the action?"

"Right here." she said, with a fat girl's chortle. She wiped the counter self-consciously and averted her eyes.

"Some action," Jody said.

"It'll be better over the weekend when the race crowd gets in," the girl said.

"Racing?" said Jody. looking astounded. "Is there going to be racing?"

"The L & M Championship," the girl said proudly.

"What is that?" Jody asked. "Drags, stock cars, what?"

"It's road racing," the girl explained. "You know, kind of sophisticated."

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.

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 élan 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.

Finally Scheckter got another car, a spanking new Lola T-330 in canary yellow from Bob Lazier. The car had never qualified with distinction in any race, which was more a reflection on Lazier's background (he runs a swank ski lodge in Vail, Colo. and races for the "ambiance") than on the machine's potential. The team's backup engine was plugged into the Lazier chassis overnight, and the "rent-a-racer" was ready to run.

"I didn't sleep too well," Scheckter admitted next morning. "My neck was stiff—pulled a muscle in the shunt, I guess—and I didn't really know if I could sort the new car. That's the problem when you're young in this sport. A good car can make a mediocre driver into something sensational. Maybe the Trojan was just that good car; maybe I was nothing more than a chauffeur. And my neck was hurting something fierce. I wished I had someone there to massage it, a girl, maybe, my fiancée Pam, maybe, Like that."

But Jody resolved both his doubts and his sore neck pretty quickly. Within 10 laps in the borrowed car he had broken his own lap mark for a Formula 5,000 machine, and three laps later he ran an astounding 1:41.227—the equivalent of 120.095 miles an hour, which was quicker than Jackie Stewart ever took a Formula 1 car around the course during a Grand Prix. Indeed, only Peter Revson—clocked in 1:39 in a McLaren Can-Am car with fully 850 hp to Scheckter's 500—had ever run the course faster.

What was most interesting about Scheckter's runs in the Lola was the smoothness of his style. Gone were the sideways glitches, the wrenching corrections on the wheel that had previously made everyone's heart leap. Instead, he took the corners coolly and directly, with a polish that had been lacking in his earlier appearances on the circuit. When he went on to win the Watkins Glen race itself the next day, it was in the same smooth manner. Nobody was remotely close, not even Redman, who finished second and seemed undismayed by the fact.

"I don't know," Scheckter said of himself. "Up to early this year I was just a kind of flat-out runner. That was meaningful then. It got me noticed, it got me rides. Now maybe it's time to learn other things. How to sort things out and learn what a car is all about. I think I did it with the Lazier Lola. That shunt in the Trojan may have been the best thing that ever happened to me." He ran his hand through his kinky brown hair—his "South Afro," as it is known, which he maintains is good only for scrubbing pots and pans. His sleepy, gun-fighter eyes were dead cool. "I hope so," he added.

He sounded anything but brash and arrogant. And nobody laughed. Because at the end of five L & M races, Jody David Scheckter, age 23, had won four, along with 95 points and $87,350. Not bad for a rookie.