Many great sportsmen reach a peak by the age of 30 and after that it’s all downhill. Not so Jody Scheckter, the South-African-born Formula One ace, whose second and third careers – in firearms and organic farming – have been pursued with as much gusto as the first, making him £100m along the way.
Anyone who knew Scheckter in his racing glory days would be amazed at the change in him, says The Independent. The “swarthily-sideburned hothead who caused such a massive pile-up in the 1973 British Grand Prix that half the field had to withdraw”, is now a mellow “British country gentleman”, tending his idyllic 2,500-acre estate at Laverstoke Park in Hampshire. But don’t be deceived. Scheckter has thrown himself into organic farming “with the same intensity as he used to grip the steering wheel of his Ferrari”. He eats, walks, talks and sleeps farming, describing soil management as his passion. “There are more living things in a handful of good soil than there are people on Earth,” is a favourite line. His compost heap alone covers four acres.
The son of a Renault dealer, Scheckter, 57, grew up in the Eastern Cape and dreamt of becoming a racing star at an early age. He raced for Europe at 20, eventually joining Enzo Ferrari’s Grand Prix team. “As a driver, Scheckter was known as difficult and distant,” says The Washington Post. Anything that did not directly relate to his goal of winning races was shut out. “He didn’t win popularity, but he did win races.” In all, Scheckter drove 112 times in the Grand Prix, ending in the world championship in 1979. Soon after, he retired: it would be a full decade before he got into a racing car again. At the time, many were surprised, notes The Observer. Given his lack of experience in any other field, it was assumed he’d follow the path of many a pampered sports star and make “an embarrassing comeback”. Scheckter had other plans.
Moving to the US, he chose to start a business in a market in which his connections counted for nothing. “I wanted to succeed on my own merit, rather than play on my name from Formula One.” He had got the idea of producing a computerised firearms simulator – using lasers rather than bullets – from a magazine in Monaco. In Atlanta, he found a technician to partner him and started Fire Arms Training Systems. The change in lifestyle was profound, he told The Washington Post. “In Italy, when I’d enter a restaurant, everybody would stand and applaud. At my first trade show in the United States, one guy recognised me. Talk about culture shock.” But Scheckter quickly found a market, winning contracts from 250 police and army agencies across the US, including the FBI, and solid export business. By the time he sold the business in 1996, says South Africa’s Business Day, “it had cornered 95% of the world market”.
Scheckter’s move to Laverstoke was partly inspired by his British second wife, Clare, who wanted to educate their children here. But what started as a hobby of growing “the best-tasting, healthiest food for myself and my family” soon became an obsession. Scheckter, who keeps ten of his old racing cars in a garage on the estate, has sunk millions into his burgeoning farm business (see below). It is still loss-making, but, given past form, few would bet on that continuing for long. Scheckter says he doesn’t much care anyway. Asked by the Daily Star what he would spend a lottery win on, he replies: “Probably another Jersey cow. Their milk’s fantastic.”
How Squire Scheckter turned a passion into sales
Country Life’s editor-at-large Clive Aslet once described Jody Scheckter as typical of the high-flying “nouveau farmers with money to spend on landscape, Highland cattle and organic goodness” now buying up vast tracts of Britain’s farmland. But there’s nothing remotely amateurish about his operation. Scheckter, says Farmers Guardian approvingly, is a pioneer of the “gate to plate” movement. Not content with populating the farm with herds of pedigree cattle (Hereford and Aberdeen Angus), sheep, wild boar, rare pig breeds, chickens and Europe’s largest herd of water buffalo, Squire Scheckter has built his own state-of-the-art abattoir and a microbiology lab to optimise the development of the blend of 31 herbs, clovers and grasses, which “provides a rich ‘mixed salad’ for our livestock”. His farm machinery, it goes without saying, is run on bio-fuels.
“Organic farming is about passion and lifestyle rather than big business,” says Scheckter. But he certainly hasn’t lost his nose for commerce, remarks The Times. The sales side of the business, once centred on the estate’s farm shop, is now breaking into new markets. He recently won a contract to supply organic produce and bio-fuels to Honda’s Formula One team and plans to start exporting biltong to South Africa. He’s working on producing mozzarella cheese and ice-cream from his buffalo, and has just planted a champagne vineyard scheduled to produce its first vintage in six years’ time. “Tousle-haired and intense”, he still occasionally lapses into his old, abrasive ways. When he met the Prince of Wales, “I told [him] he should spend more money on his farming, but did he listen?”