Jody Scheckter - And he walked away
"After my difficult final year in Formula 1, I quit the sport for good. But the influence of what I'd learnt in my competitive life would often echo as I built new businesses far away from the race tracks."
By Damien Smith
As symbolic gestures go, it was hardly subtle. At the 1980 United States Grand Prix, reigning World Champion Jody Scheckter hauled himself out of his Ferrari, trod purposefully down its nose and directly into retirement. He'd qualified 23rd, nearly five seconds off the pace, and 'raced' to 11th, the last classified finisher and three laps down. It had been the same story, sometimes worse, all year. His mind had been made up months ago. After Watkins Glen, he'd never drive a racing car competitively again.
Scheckter's retirement became infamous. Like his friend Jackie Stewart, he was never tempted to return. The difference was, he not only walked away from the cockpit but also left the sport behind him completely, building a new life and business far away from his old friends and everything he knew. Then having done it once, he did it again. No other Formula 1 World Champion has turned his back on the sport so comprehensively. But as usual, the truth is a little more complicated than it might seem.
"During 1980, I felt I was still trying at the races," says Jody. "But I always asked myself, when you wake up in the middle of the night, are you thinking 'Is the car doing this or that?'. I probably wasn't thinking like that by then.
"I wanted to win the world championship and I'd done that. The magic had gone for me. And at the time one or two drivers were killed every year. When you go into the sport, it sounds macho but you think, 'If I die, I die'. It's Fl and it's fantastic. Then you see things you don't like and you realise what it's all about. I thought to myself, 'I can't do it for the money. It's time to get out.' So I walked away.
"I'd had a great innings. With ifs and buts I could have done better, but no, it was a great career. And I came out alive."
At first, he didn't leave it all behind completely. After all, there was no grand plan for what he'd do next. "It wasn't about what I was going to do, but rather what I was not going to do," he says. "I just knew I wasn't going to carry on racing. In fact, Renault offered me a deal at my second to last race, in Canada — where I didn't even qualify. They offered 'any money you want'. I said no, I'd already made my decision. After I stopped I worked on promoting a few motorcycle races at Donington Park, and then I was trying to fit together a global version of something like the IROC [International Race of Champions] series, trying to get Ford to put Cosworth engines in a Capri. I worked for a year on that, but it didn't happen. I didn't know enough about what I was doing.
" Like so many ex-drivers, he tried his hand at media work. "They asked me to do a TV documentary in Long Beach," he says. "Lying in bed I heard the cars going out and thought 'Am I late?' Then I relaxed, thinking 'This is great'.
"Over time the urge to go back got less and less. At first I wanted to do one race at Monaco. I probably felt that for five years. Then I got to a stage where I felt I didn't want to drive an Fl car because I knew I'd do three laps and my neck would be sore. Anyway, what did I still have to prove?"
Scheckter's life was changed by a magazine advertisement. "I was in Monaco when I saw it. The ad showed a simulator of a gun shooting at a screen. I thought what a great idea, to interact with a movie. The friend I was with said the company that made it was based in England, and did I want to go and see it? I said yes.
"I thought what a great concept, but how badly it was done. A friend did some research, to see if there was a business for this idea, and said law enforcement needed something to train police how to make key decisions under pressure. I'd been thinking of the games industry, but instead I ended up going to the FBI with this idea. I thought maybe they were being polite, but they said it sounded great."
The business that would become Firearms Training Systems, or FATS, "started on the kitchen table in a little place in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Before this, simulators were simply a friendly or unfriendly picture on a shooting range. But this was taking a movie, an actual incident that had been recreated, and using a laser detection system, so you knew exactly if you'd been accurate. We developed that, made it more sophisticated and took it to the military as well."
Jody is telling me this as we sit in the spacious lounge of his 18th century stately home, Laverstoke House. Outside, the grounds stretch down to the wooded horizon. Beyond the trees and the river is Laverstoke Park, the 2500-acre organic farm that consumes Scheckter today. Racing didn't buy him all of this. It was the training systems business that made him a multimillionaire. But none of it came easily.
The back story behind FATS shows just how big a step he made by quitting racing in the way he did. "I always said I went from first class to stand-by in one year," he says. "When we went over to the States we started in a hotel that didn't even serve breakfast. Then we lived in a small apartment in Hilton Head, then on to Atlanta. Nobody knew my background. I would go to a show to talk about my idea and while I was talking to a guy, he'd just turn around and walk away. I was there with my cashmere jacket, which in those circumstances was completely out of place."
But his racing background stood him in good stead for life's biggest challenge yet. "We were taking technology right to the limit and we worked very fast, both things I learnt from Fl," he says. "Fl is the fastest in the world for that, even more than wartime. What we did was combine different technologies. They weren't breaking new ground on their own, but we put them together to make this simulator."
But by the early 1990s, FATS was taking its toll. "It was a massive adventure for 12 years," he says, "in some ways as rewarding as F1, but nobody knew about it. We were in 35 different countries, we had 95 per cent of the world market and in the last three years the turnover rose from £29m to £60m to £100m. But my wife worked 13 weekends in a row. All we did was work. On a Friday you'd have half a glass of wine and fall asleep.
"At the end of those three years the shareholders said it was time to sell, because a bad year would have dropped its worth. My wife is English and she wanted to come home. So we sold it to a fund in New York that went public two months later. We were very lucky. We didn't get it all because there were other shareholders. But we did well. "
He won't be pushed on specifics, but Scheckter and his family arrived back in England worth tens of millions more than when they left. But at 46, such a man wasn't about to sit back. The question was what to do next."
"On our return I bought 530 acres and this place," he says. "I didn't want to go into the same business here. I didn't know what to do. So I said to myself, 'If I'm not doing anything else I'm going to produce the best-tasting, healthiest food for my family'." That phrase — 'best-tasting, healthiest food' — should come with a trademark sign. It crops up time and again as we discuss Laverstoke. It's the Scheckter mantra.
"I had a farm in America and my wife gave me a book on organics," he says when asked how it started. "I suppose it became a passion. I've always been a `foodie' and I've always been fit and exercised. But then you realise you can't do it small. If you do, you can't do it well. The farm next door came up for sale, so I bought that and now we have 2500 acres.
"I suppose I drank a lot of whisky and got a lot of ideas. It's become a monster. I did too much. I started eight companies at once, all to do the same thing: to produce the best-tasting, healthiest food. There was a lab, a mozzarella factory, an abattoir, composting and so on. But I was playing somebody else's game and the meat market is the worst. In cars, you bring a thousand pieces together, you make one and you sell it. In an abattoir you bring in one, then cut it into a thousand pieces. But if you don't sell a few of those pieces you lose money because the margins are so small.
"In America I was doing a contract with the Marine Corps worth £100 million. Then I came back and had to decide whether an egg would sell for 3p or 4p. You have to watch every single penny. I'm nine years into it and only now am I starting to realise how many things we weren't doing right. We've got too many products. They're fantastic, but if you make them by hand you can never make money. So we've got to make fewer products and more of them."
So how much of his vast fortune has he spent on Laverstoke Park? "I wouldn't want to say, it's too embarrassing," he mumbles. "It's a lot." But he does admit the business is not yet profitable. "I'm fighting like mad. In America we used to call it the paperclip theory — you want to save wherever you can, whatever size the business is. We did it well in America, but back here you knew in your subconscious you had money, and I wanted to move fast because I didn't have a whole life to create something new. It became a culture of money flying out everywhere. Now I have to make it work. After all, I can't go back and race! It's made me get off my backside."
Scheckter, who admits he is "the worst" to work for, is searching for a managing director to take over the day-to-day running of his business, allowing him the time to think strategically. And he already has a new member of the team, an internal recruitment.
"My son Tomas has retired from IndyCars, thank goodness. He's working here now. He was a star in Indy, and all he's ever known is speed: around a track, in a pitstop, in development. He's now bringing that to our business, armed with a stopwatch and helping the guys to become more efficient.
"For the past three years Tomas didn't have full-time drives, so from a mental point of view it was very tough. Coming back here, he feels like he's really needed and is achieving something."
But when you live where you work, and you've pushed hard through three separate careers, you don't just stop. Jody Scheckter, at 62, just won't quit. "What else would I do? Get a yacht, go to Monaco, get fat and get into trouble! People don't realise how much I've worked at this business. America was tough too because we started with nothing. But here, I still work until 10-11pm every night, answering e-mails and so on. And I enjoy most of it. I'd just love to see some more success coming in."
He's had his fair share, but Scheckter's an instinctive businessman. Losing money equals failure and that's not something he can accept. Success — as a racer, as an entrepreneur and now as a farmer — is all he understands.
When Jody's sons went racing, the World Champion had to pitch in
Jody Scheckter describes it as his "fourth career", and the one he enjoyed the least. On his return to England in the 1990s Toby and Tomas, sons from his first marriage, had got the bug. Jody became a racing dad.
"I said to them, 'If you're good enough, I'll take you to El. If not, I want you to stop'. That was my worst career. Ah, it was horrible. When I first came over from South Africa in 1971 I was in the paddock at Brands Hatch changing gear ratios. Nearly 30 years later I was back there doing the same thing."
Toby got as far as F3 before he realised he wouldn't make it, but Tomas was successful in IndyCar. Thanks to the boys, Jody found himself engaged with racing again. And as he admits, it wasn't all horrible.
"At the time I was still the last World Champion for Ferrari," he says. "I was more famous for that than actually being World Champion. That was fun for a few years. When I won it I didn't feel any different, I didn't suddenly have more money, it didn't change my life at all. And the next year I didn't do very well anyway. So this was an opportunity of sorts to enjoy it properly."