A Racing Tradition

GW freshman Hugo Scheckter will be part of the pit crew at the Indy 500.
May 13, 2010

By Menachem Wecker

Hugo Scheckter wants to dispel any misconceptions that auto racing is a boring sport that just involves cars going around in circles – or ovals.

In races, he says, cars travel at speeds of up to 230 miles per hour, and three or four are often side by side, just inches apart. “You smell the burning rubber and the smoke every time they come around,” says the GW freshman who hails from a family of professional race car drivers.

“People get hurt racing, unfortunately,” Mr. Scheckter says. “But that just adds to the drama.”

Later this month, Mr. Scheckter, who is already in Indianapolis, heads to his second Indy 500, where he will work in the pit crew for his brother, Tomas, a professional driver. He has attended about 10 other races, all which featured his brother as a driver.

Racing runs in the Scheckter family. Tomas and Hugo’s father was the Formula One Grand Prix world champion in 1979, and their uncle, great uncle, older brother and cousin also have raced. “I am actually one of the first Scheckter boys not to get into a car,” says Mr. Scheckter, who was born in Georgia but grew up in England. “I’m too tall and too wide, so I don’t fit into the car very well.”

Though he had shown some promise at go-karting, Mr. Scheckter much preferred the business of racing to actually getting behind the wheel. His father advised him to chart his own course in life – even if it was off the speedway – so he became the first person in his family to go to college.

He jokes that he finds an “outlet” for his family’s tradition in his own fast driving, and he has already received a speeding ticket in the District.

Since coming to D.C. last fall for his freshman year, Mr. Scheckter has become general manager of GW men’s Club Soccer, and he recently stepped down as president of GW Cricket. He is also involved in College Republicans and is president of the newly formed Club Sports Council.

“I was never that into cricket, but compared with most Americans I was,” he jokes. “I know a little about it, but not a lot. Just ask my teammates.” His “main passion” is soccer, though, so he was thrilled when there was an opportunity to run the soccer club.

Since moving to England in 1996, Mr. Scheckter had always known he wanted to return to America to go to college. “GW was definitely the best place that I looked at, and I was so lucky to get in,” he says.

He did not know anyone at GW when he applied but used Facebook aggressively last summer to meet incoming students. By the time he arrived in Foggy Bottom, Mr. Scheckter estimates he had already connected with about 40 students.

Having gone to boarding school for 12 years, Mr. Scheckter was used to living away from home, he says, and he had also developed a talent for making new friends. He uses Twitter to connect with fellow students, and Tomas is also using Twitter to connect with fans, upon Hugo’s advice.

At the Indy 500, Mr. Scheckter always makes a point of wearing a GW cap, t-shirt or both. “I’m proud to represent GW wherever I am,” he says. “It’s a great way to get the name out and to show that GW is represented everywhere.”

After the Indy 500 on May 30, Mr. Scheckter plans to return to England to work on his father’s organic farm, Laverstoke Park Farm, for the rest of the summer. Among other things, the farm produces organic steak (“in my opinion the best!”), mozzarella cheese, ice cream and beer. The beer is now sold in California and will be available nationally in the next few months.

But unlike his experiences at GW, which he is quick to promote at the drop of a hat (or by donning a hat), the Indy 500 has a dark side as well, Mr. Scheckter says.

Mr. Scheckter says he loves the thrill and the adrenaline that comes from working out of the pit stop – “I’m right in the action!” – but he also knows there is potential “for everything to go wrong.” He uses words like “crazy” and “awesome” to describe the event that draws some 300,000 spectators, but it is a relief when the three or four hour race is over.

“It’s very tough seeing a loved one out there risking his life,” he says.

Teams, which spend between $10 million and $2 million each season, put themselves at financial risk. A crash could cost millions and bankrupt a small team, he says.

Despite varying degrees of “bells and whistles,” every car has the same basic design, and much of the race comes down to driving skill. “At the end of the day you have to be a good driver to win,” he says.

And Tomas is a good driver: He has participated in more than 100 races and has led more than 1,300 laps in his career. Tomas has also won two races and eight coveted “pole positions,” which placed him in front of the other cars at the start of a race.

Mr. Scheckter says he and Tomas (who have an older brother, a younger brother and two younger sisters) are very close. At the Indy 500, he will help Tomas get his helmet and suit ready, and he will make sure Tomas has the right drinks to stay well hydrated in the very heavy and warm suit. He will also help prepare the VIP area for Tomas’ sponsor (an energy drink company) and run promotional sites.

“It’d be great if we could win, but even a top five would be an amazing result,” he says.

Mr. Scheckter, who aspires to work for a “top-level” sports team, says he draws on his coursework at GW to help his brother. “I think my studies at GW are really helping prepare me for a career in sports management.”

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