IRL, Indy 500: Interview With Eddie Cheever, '98 Indy Winner
22 May 1999Q: Joining us for a press conference now is the defending Indy 500 champion, Eddie Cheever. Nice ring to it, isn't there?
CHEEVER: It does, yes. Defending. They keep calling me "former" and I said, "It's a little early to be calling me 'former.' It's 'defending.'"
Q: You, since winning the Indianapolis 500, have really tried hard to articulate what it means, not only for you but for every race driver in the world. Is it any different now than when you first won the race? I mean, have you changed maybe some of your perceptions about it?
CHEEVER: That's a good question. Every day it evolves. Every day it has another nuance to it. Every day you'll meet a different person who'll have a different perspective on it. The interesting thing about coming back to Indianapolis, in the city of Indianapolis where so many, you know, great races over 83 years... there's been so many stories that have been written here that there are a variety of generations of fans that have watched it, and they all have a different perspective on it. When I sit down with a fan and he says he saw Graham Hill win and you compare something that I did to something that he did, as a racing driver it brings a whole new dimension to it. The beauty of the Speedway is that it ties all the passion that all the racing drivers and teams had for one place, and this place is still here. It's there. Those are the same walls, it's the same under the asphalt that gets changed every now and then is the same basic circuit. That's what I like. From a racing driver's perspective, I like the idea that I'm in that continuum of people that have come and raced here, and I was just fortunate to win it. I don't know... the right circumstances and the right place, but just to be part of that group is a great honor.
Q: Eddie, you may have coined the best phrase ever when you said that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a living, breathing organism.
CHEEVER: I said that after practice one day because we were chasing, we were chasing the conditions and in this place, it's unbelievable. I mean, between one hour and other, you can go from having a very well balanced racing car to a car that's impossible to drive. And I think it was two years ago we were qualifying and the air was... it was a very dark day and the air was very humid and it was like, it was just like driving a car through a bowl of Jell-O. And I've tried; trying to explain that was very difficult, but there's no other racetrack like this. I mean, you could have the wind shift 15 degrees and all of a sudden you're turning into one corner seven miles an hour quicker than before and four miles an hour slower in another one, and the track has lost adhesion and the track temperature has changed 25 degrees and the whole way your car handles changes. So, the hardest thing in the race is to make sure you have a window that your car will operate well in 'cause it's very easy to have a peak and a lull. I think (Rick) Mears said once that you have to, you know, get rid of the real high ones and get rid of the real low ones and just make everything as easy as you can to drive, but it is an unbelievable racing track. And it's so big.
Q: How about this year? How is the personality of this place treating you?
CHEEVER: Well. Well. We're a much stronger team that we were last year. Infinitely, excuse the pun, stronger than we were last year. We have a different engine. We've a much stronger relationship with Good Year than we had in the past. We've done thousands and thousands of miles of testing with them here and everywhere else. Myself, Owen and Richard Carron are jelling way past our expectations of what we thought we'd be able to do and everybody understands what their job is. Then, you know, so far the Speedway has treated us very well. Historically we don't tend to focus on a lap. We try to focus on understanding. Every day we act like it's a race day, OK? What are we going to do? Today's race day. What are we going to do? How would we solve these problems? And then we go through all that data and we try to figure it out and hopefully by the time Sunday comes, or the last Sunday in May, we'll have more information than anybody else will. And we'll be able to act upon it, and if the lottery ticket we have is a winning one, then we win the race. If it isn't, we'll give it our best try.
Q: Certainly open it up for any questions from you people. Eddie, your first days in practice showed, obviously, that the Infiniti had the power. Is it possible safe to say then, from your experience that the power in that engine may have always been there. It just didn't have somebody like an Eddie Cheever to put his foot in it and squeeze more out?
CHEEVER: Actually, I think I got the attention of the Infiniti engine because what Guerrero was doing in it. I started to focusing on what Roberto was doing, and he'd had some pretty strong runs. I think the biggest problem that the Infiniti program had is that it didn't have enough teams giving information. You can't rely on one person. I think it was on the shoulders of Miller for a while to do that, and I think it's difficult to develop an engine program with one driver, especially a relatively new driver who'd just come to the series. So, you know, we all chip in. We have a very heaving testing program with the Infiniti and we've made an enormous amount of progress. My only fear is that we haven't had enough endurance runs with it so far, but I came into the Indy 500 last year after having exploded every engine I owned in Phoenix. I had to borrow an engine from Foyt to make the race, and I'm still very grateful for that. I mean, I just walked up to Foyt and said, "I need an engine," and he said, "If it breaks, are you going to pay for it?" and I said, "Yup," and that was it. And he lent me an engine. And we came here and I started the race last year convinced that I wasn't going to make it past the halfway point. We had a big problem with the rod bearings last year. We're way ahead of where we were last year with the engines, definitely, but I haven't done... I'm a very anal test driver. I like to go around and around and check things a 100 times to make sure their right, and I haven't had the opportunity as far as the endurance of this engine is concerned. So, you know, I'm reluctant to say we're where we need to be, but I believe that we've made a lot of progress.
Q: Eddie, how's it changed that we're down to two weeks now, and does it still have the same meaning that it used to have, being only a two week race as compared to a three week race?
CHEEVER: I'm very glad it's down to two weeks. I did not enjoy being in the racecar every day for a whole month. I think it put a lot of equipment and drivers at risk, but that was purely from a driver's perspective. And I have to say being a team owner, I'm very I don't have to spend all that money to keep a car running for the whole month. I think times have changed. Racing fans are also basketball fans, are also movie buffs, they have a variety... they watch television. They have a variety of things that they can go do and I think extending that excitement for a whole month might have been a very valid way of doing it in the '50s and the '60s and the '70s where there were less choices for them to have. I believe the way they do it now is correct. I wouldn't even mind if we shut it down to half a week beforehand. I mean, a lot of stuff we're doing now... we're re-controlling the same things over and over again. I found every day to be very exciting here. Everybody's working very hard. At the end of every day it's a mad rush to see who gets the fastest time. I... one of the greatest things I've seen this year is I've seen a whole bunch of little kids and families and moms and dads and we're bringing along a whole new generation of fans. So maybe what worked in the '50s and '60s and '70s and maybe then early '80s had to be changed to do it here. Now, we have Fanfest. Who would have thought we'd have had a mini-Disney World inside the Indy 500, which in essence, we do? So it's... everything's evolving. I'm not that much of a marketing person, but I do sense a change in the people that are coming to see the 500.
Q: Does it mean that the "500" is changing?
CHEEVER: The Indy 500? Absolutely. I mean, you're asking somebody who's very biased towards... I mean, I left a successful Formula One career to come and race the Indy 500. And I did that because I was an American, and I spent most of my early adult life in Europe. I would say that 80 percent of the fan mail and e-mail and telephone calls after the "500" and throughout this year have come from Europe. So when you are to measure the importance of an event, be it the Olympics or a single sporting event, the world is now a little village. Everybody can find out whatever they want on anything very quickly. And the Indy 500 is still something extremely American. It is the largest sporting event in the world, single event, and you know, it's the 500. The split did not do it any good, but I believe it was necessary to make open-wheel oval racing in the States as healthy as it had been in the past. I think people tried to... not people, maybe just the economy or the teams that were racing it, and they tried to Europeanize open-wheel racing in America. By doing so, they lost their core, which is the American oval racing fan, and that's what we are. I mean, America is a very unique country. I mean, we do things our way. No other place in the world would every think of racing a car in an oval. We do it. We do it very well. Look at NASCAR. NASCAR is an unbelievable successful story, and they've had the same formula for 51 years. But what we've tried to do here is go back to a page in our history books about 20 years ago and try to re-invent that era that created the Foyts, that created the Andrettis, that created the Rutherfords, that created the Parnelli Jones, that built the Indy 500 to the level that we're all acknowledge now. I think that was necessary. To do that, you had to have a constant flow of racing drivers that had worked on the dirt tracks, and the oval tracks in Kansas and in Texas, Oklahoma or wherever they might be. And you really think that Foyt could have become as successful as he did if he'd have had to go out and find sponsorship? Can you imagine Foyt going up to someone and saying, "You have to give me..."?
CHEEVER (cont.): That wouldn't have worked. It would not have happened. And what a loss that would have been. I mean, what an enormous loss that would have been. Just to take a name that everybody knows now, Tony Stewart. Tony Stewart had a dirty little driving suit on the first time I met him, and he was all gritty. He was, he is an unbelievable talent, and he had the success that he has had thanks to being given the opportunity of having a shot at the Indianapolis 500, and he made it because he was talented. So... I don't even remember what your question was... I tend to deviate. In all of that litany of...
Q: Eddie. Eddie, in all of this, though, you look around here and as you say, "Times are changing." And it looks very much to be the case here with the changing face of the Speedway and it seems like it's evolving into something else, you know. You have NASCAR coming here, and next year you'll have Formula One. How does that impact the stature of this race, which used to be the standalone event for a month, and for eons here at this track? Do you think this diminishes it at all whatsoever?
CHEEVER: I think any racing fan is a good fan. I feel that it's all one, big, large... for lack of a better use, a large family when we go to Charlotte, when we go to Atlanta, when we go to Disney... wherever we're going, if a NASCAR fan has the opportunity to go to our races and likes it, we've just embraced a different group of people. The Indy 500 20 years ago is probably the only very large event that happened in this area, and I haven't gone, I haven't studied the history of it with as much detail as I probably should have. But, you know, it's still... what has happened as this one location, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, now has the best open-wheel oval race in the world, the best I believe NASCAR or the best driver, NASCAR drivers here once a year and is now going to have the best open-wheel road circuit drivers in the world. So in one location, you're going to have the top, the elite in every group of racing drivers. I think that's formidable. I think we need to talk more about the location than a single event. And every time you bring a fan to see a motor race that's another fan that could watch something else. I get a lot of... since I did the IROC race, I've had hundreds and hundreds of letters come from NASCAR fans. I have magazines that write only about NASCAR calling up and asking us what we're doing. It spreads. It spreads. Racing fans like excitement. If you can offer them excitement, if you can offer them a race where you don't know who's going to win, and you can offer them a variety of other enhancing things in entertainment they'd like to, they'll be successful. So, if your question is, "Has the 500 diminished?" no, I don't think it has. I think the 500 has remained a very, the most important oval in the world. But there are other races that are racing in the same location. I for one was not offended when they brought NASCAR here. I thought it was a very good idea. And I think the whole way, if you look at how the IRL was set up, Indy Racing League was set up, it is to take advantage of all of that ground work that NASCAR has done. There's a lot of racing fans out there. There's a whole bunch of them. The problem is there isn't a person in America that didn't know... probably in racing, who doesn't know who Earnhardt is because the marketing has been so successful. So we just need to continue doing that, but to answer your question, I believe the Indy 500 is still an important event. I for one want to win it again because of that.
Q: Do you think that though this race will become a race that draws upon an eclectic group of drivers, you know, maybe not unlike an IROC race where you have...
CHEEVER: The "500?" I hope so. I hope so. I hope so, and I think you will see more NASCAR owners taking an active interest in the Indy Racing League, and I know you're going to see more owners from the IRL taking an interest in what NASCAR's doing. And with all this change that's happened with Penske selling his stock and the merging of two companies, this is business. I mean, I look at it from a variety of sides, but when you look at probably three or four billion dollars I've invested over the last 15 years in these new facilities, Brooten-Smith facilities, and the ones being built in Colorado, all of these ovals that are being built. There are two ways you can keep on sending the price of the stock up: one is to cut costs down, which is a limit you could do, or you can have another way of filling the grandstands. You cannot have 86 NASCAR Winston Cup races every year. So the only other viable alternative that's out there right now is a successful, open-wheel racing series. And does that ring anybody's bell? Do I need to continue down that line?
Q: Eddie, I interviewed you several years ago here back in the garage area, sitting on a workbench during Rookie Orientation Program, ROP. How has Eddie Cheever changed from that day, first time here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to today as defending champion of the Indianapolis 500?
CHEEVER: First thing that comes to mind is that I'm divorced. That's one. Well, yeah. I'm not as wealthy as I used to be. I bought a house last... it's been a great... I mean, I'm such a fortunate human being. I got so tired of hearing people say how unlucky, and I was lucky sometimes and say how grateful I was to have won race, but I've had such a great life. I was a little kid racing a go-cart and I had no idea, I mean, like every little kid I had dreams of winning the Indy 500, racing in Formula One and traveling all over the world. I've managed to do everything I wanted to do. I've raced Formula one for 10 years. I raced at Lamaze. I have unbelievable friends. It was just such a, it's been such an awesome life. I mean, I couldn't have done any better. And this whole period you talked about from when I came to Indy was just a brand new chapter in my life, and it's been... I've had a lot of ups and downs, and races that went well and races that didn't go well, but I always managed to do what I wanted to do. I wanted to drive racing cars as fast as I could against the best racing drivers in the world. And now, I'm at a point in this oval racing career which I'm just now starting to understand what it takes to win races. All these new doors and opportunities have opened to me. When they say America is the land of opportunity, it is really true. I had no idea what it would mean winning the Indy 500. I had no idea whatsoever. You cannot explain to somebody how it changes your life. It's just mind boggling. I mean, it goes, it runs through all the generations of people that you will meet. I've met 80-year-olds that had one perspective of it. I met a five-year-old the other day that had another perspective on it. I mean, it's just changed completely. So the racing drivers... there's more to ovals than just going straight, turning left, going straight, turning left, going straight, turning left. And it's a whole new art of driving that I had to learn and it's taken me a long time to learn it. I don't know if that answers your question, 'cause it's very difficult.
Q: Eddie, you've spoken about the advancement of F-1 driving. Would you be comfortable in a Formula One car right now, and if you had a chance here to do some, enter to a driver, or is somebody came up with a lot of money, would you consider possibly running here in an F1 car?
CHEEVER: How much money? How much money? No, I don't.... I think there's a season for everything. I gave Formula One 10, 11 years of absolute, total dedication, and I would not want to put myself through that same grind that I did before. The era of just being able to jump into one thing and a do a race for something else is over. I think Formula One is very much a game for 20 to 30-year-old. I'm sure I could run it as fast as anybody could. I'm sure I would have a great time doing it, but everything else in your life ceases to exist. It is a 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and it's like being inside of a tornado. I had 10 years of my life just went by without any, you know. I didn't know it went by. I mean, after it was all done and said, I looked back and said, "Wow. What happened? How'd it all pass so quickly?" Technically, of course, it's going to be very exciting. Anything... they are the top automotive engineers in the world. I mean, there's some teams that have 150 engineers. Many teams have their own wind tunnels. When you consider all of these pieces that McClaren has together. They have Mercedes doing their engines. They're building a whole new factory that will hold 300 people. They have their own bank inside of the factory. So when all that energy is focused on one driver who's having to drive the car, it's unbelievable. The people, the fans that come here are not going to believe what Formula One is. There's no other road circuit racing that even remotely compares to it. To compare CART to Formula One is like comparing high school football to the best professional football team in the world. There's no comparison. They both play the same game and they both play with a lot of enthusiasm, but the technical ability of a Formula One team is... I've been out of it for 10 years, and I saw... I went to Montreal last year and it was the only time I was racing that they never let you get behind the pit of another team, and I managed to walk through the back of Ferrari and Mercedes and I saw that they had. And I think every team had five to six million dollars of computers in the pits. And every computer had an engineer that was probably being paid anywhere up to $150,000 each staring at a screen. And every time the car runs, there are reams and reams of information that is processed and put into the car that's... 18,000 revs from an engine? 7g decelerating force? It's just something else. People here are just not going to be able to believe it. It's going to be very different.
Q: Any other questions? Yeah, I've got one more. Baseball is talking about letting players wear patches on their uniforms. I guess you guys lead the world in that category already. Do you mind if other sports start wearing patches?
CHEEVER: I think nobody else should wear patches, just car racing. I vote that we say no to that. There's a very strange relationship between the racing fans and the companies that sponsor racing teams. The racing fans that they get to see their sport because of the corporate backing that helps and makes it all possible. And there's a direct correlation between the sponsorship on the cars and the products that sell, and I think that's a very important part of motor racing. I know that Infiniti was to be successful in motor racing for a variety of reasons. One is to show their technical product and the other, because they want people to buy their cars. This is the only sport in the world where there's a direct correlation between the racing fan not only acknowledging but embracing the products that are being promoted through racing. I think it's great. It used to be you'd only see oils and gasoline if you go through the years, but it's changed now. Now you see breakfast foods, milk, home improvement products. So there's a very strange mixture that takes advantage of the opportunity in motor racing.
Q: This will be the last question. Eddie, I'm sure you've been asked about this many times over since you visited Victory Circle here, but I remember one instance that kind of just seemed to, you know, incongruous with your personality and that's when Jack interviewed you and you were speechless in Victory Circle. Is that the power and aura of winning this race, and can you maybe take us back to that moment and reflect upon that?
CHEEVER: What time does practice start? I, at that point in time, I had a team that was vastly under-financed, I had a very talented group of people, and I had to have a good Indy 500. I had no choice. I mean, our company's future depended upon it. There was an unbelievable amount of stress, and throughout the whole 500, I kept smelling an opportunity, but over 25 years of racing that had happened so many times and so many times I had the rug pulled out from underneath me that you almost cease to believe that something good can happen to you. It's not that you don't feel... I mean, I don't want to sound like I was whining, but I mean, so many times it had been plucked from me that I did not expect it to be successful. When I got down to the last 20 laps and I had the opportunity to win the race and I knew it was there, the build-up of pressure is so big... and you focus so hard on what you're doing that when I actually crossed the start/finish line, I had a hard time believing it. I mean, I had a very hard time believing it, and I had all these things go through my mind. You talk about being pumped up on adrenaline; you've been pumped up on adrenaline for 3 and a half hours and you've been dodging bullets and cars are crashing and somebody bumps you from behind and I almost dragged the fuel pump down the straight-away. I mean, it's a never-ending roller coaster of emotions you have to keep on being focused. So when I won the race and I came into the pits, I was... I had nothing left. I gave everything I had. I had absolutely nothing left. When he interviewed by, you know what I really wanted to do right then? I wanted to go in a room and sit by myself for 10 minutes. Idon't know. I just wanted to be quiet for 10 minutes and it wasn't possible. So you...it's such a powerful emotion that it's difficult to sit down and talk. You don't really feel like talking to anybody. I didn't. I mean, I was happy. He was happy. We were all happy. Everybody was yelling and screaming. I was still in the racing car. I still had Lazier that was only four seconds away and I had a vibration in the right rear, and the tire temperature was a little too high and the car's not right and the wind just changed and is the wind going to change again and you have all of these going through your mind. And you're trying to beat everybody, and how am I going to do another restart? Are we going to have another restart? That last trick might not work the next time, and he's on to me and you have all these things that go through your head... so you jump out of the car, sticks a microphone in your hand. Somebody hands you a glass of milk, and... the place goes quiet. All of a sudden there's all this noise, and then there was no noise, and I thought, "What am I going to say?" What are you going to say? Thank you?
Q: I'm thinking it struck you. I mean, here you are. You're a man of great elocution and letters, and you speak many languages and yet you were bereft of words.
CHEEVER: It was way too powerful of an emotion. It was very hard. It was like seeing your first child born. It's hard to define, but I was very happy. I still am. So I told the story of my dad, which was on my mind. That was what I said. So, you know. I'd rather be remembered for the good driving than for saying something after the Indy 500.
Q: Eddie, thank you and we'll have a reenactment of the Victory Lane in about 45 minutes from now, do you want to do that?