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Victory a Lap Too Far

September 22, 2003|Martin Henderson | Times Staff Writer

It was Tomas Scheckter's day. No doubt about it. He was celebrating his 23rd birthday Sunday, and he spent the first part of the Toyota Indy 400 blowing away 22 competitors like so many candles.

He started seventh on the grid, but the Toyota-powered G-Force he drove for owner Chip Ganassi was in the lead by Lap 8. In all, he led 112 of the 200 laps at California Speedway.

But most important, he didn't lead the final lap.

Since joining Ganassi's Indy Racing League operation, Scheckter hasn't led the final lap.

And it's starting to bother him.

"It's massively important [to win]," said the fifth-place finisher. "Since I started racing when I was 11 years old, I've won championships. I've always won races, no matter where I was in the world, England, Holland, Spain. It's frustrating to know how quick I've been this year and have nothing to show for it in the end."

The end is actually coming Oct. 12 with the season-ending race at Texas Motor Speedway. With one race left, the son of 1979 Formula One champion Jody Scheckter is still trying to live up to expectations.

It probably has cost him his job on Ganassi's team. The date for the owner to sign Scheckter has passed, making the South African a free agent.

The rumor is he's the top candidate to replace race winner Sam Hornish Jr. at Panther Racing, but he has other options too.

"For certain, I'll have a drive next year," he said. "I'm certain of that."

There's a reason he would be in demand. Scheckter is fast. He knows how to get to the front of the field. After Sunday's performance -- the fourth time this season Scheckter has led the most laps -- only teammate Scott Dixon has led more laps than Scheckter.

But Scheckter's in seventh place in the championship race, and Dixon is tied for first with Helio Castroneves, who is third in laps led.

He's underachieving, and he knows it.

"I think I'm in the top three in laps led and I haven't won, so something has gone wrong somewhere," Scheckter said. "I'd like to be going for the championship now. I'd like to win this race. I've dominated so many races, but it doesn't seem to happen for me in the end. I've done every superstitious thing I can to change my luck. There have been so many incidents when I should have had a car in victory lane."

Scheckter has one IRL victory, last year at Michigan while driving for Eddie Cheever.

That ended badly, with Scheckter quitting the team after 12 of 15 events.

He might have been in victory lane Sunday if not for a lengthy pit stop. He was leading when the field cycled through a round of green-flag stops.

Scheckter pitted on Lap 125. As he sat in the cockpit, he looked in his mirror.

It seemed to take forever, he said, for his fuel man to pull away, and at 220 mph, that can change the course of the race. And it did.

"We seemed to dominate the first half of the race," Scheckter said. "I could pull away with ease, but I had one bad stop and we struggled after that. We struggled in dirty air. I was turning more right than I was left."

And that's bad on an oval, where Scheckter called Turns 1 and 2 "treacherous."

Still, Scheckter played a role in the championship race.

He finished ahead of Castroneves, who finished eighth, and by doing so, allowed Dixon to pull even for the series lead.

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