CHEEVER UNEXPECTED INDY WINNER
by Larry Roberts
May 29, 1998
Somehow I don't think that Tony George and the Indy Racing League (IRL) "establishment" expected Eddie Cheever to win the 83rd running of the legendary Indy 500 this year. And I'm suspicious that if they had their druthers, someone else would have been on that podium taking that victory sip of milk.
Speedway president Tony George dumped the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) as the sanctioning body for the 500 in '96 when he felt that CART was extending too much control over the destiny of the race, too interested in corporate sponsorship money, and becoming too "international," for lack of a better word. The 500 was just one race in a series of world-wide oval and circuit races in the CART championship chase. George wanted Indy stars to be young all-American types who had come up through the ranks as winners in sprint and midget racing on short tracks around the country. That's the way his father Elmer did it when he arrived in Indianapolis in the '50s.
Eddie Cheever is none of these. At 40 years of age, he is definitely not a kid. And although he was born in Phoenix, his family lived in Italy from the time he was very young. He went to school in Rome and is the archetypal European expatriate American speaking fluent Spanish, Italian and French, plus a passable German and Portuguese, I'm told.
Cheever started his racing career as a European and Italian Go-Kart champion at age 15 and was runner-up in the Go-Kart World Championship the next year. His first full-sized racers were Formula Fords and he then progressed into Formula Three, then to Formula Two until 1978. Hardly Tony George's vision of a driver coming up through the short tracks of middle-America.
Entry into the big-leagues of auto racing took the form of a ride with a lesser Formula One team in South Africa in 1978. From there he began a mediocre career in the international Grand Prix world that lasted until 1989 during which time he enjoyed a handful of podium finishes for Alfa Romeo, Tyrrell and Renault in F-1, and drove in CART for Lola-Haas and Arciero in '86. He ended his Formula One career in 1989 after three years with the Arrows team during which he produced only two podium finishes.
Cheever returned to the U.S. and CART racing in 1990 when he drove a Chevrolet-powered Penske car for the Ganassi team. His debut in CART was less than spectacular, although he was designated "Rookie of the Year" at the Indy 500 thanks to his eighth-place finish. Although he lead several times in various races, Cheever was a an also-ran during his career with CART.
In 1996, along with a handful of Indy regulars, Cheever jumped from the CART ship to become a part of the initial IRL package which raced then-typical CART cars at the 500. With the IRL switch to a formula that utilized less-expensive components (Oldsmobile and Nissan V8 stock-block engines, less sophisticated chassis and aerodynamic components, etc.), Cheever was able to become a car owner as well as a driver. He won an early stock-block IRL race in '97 at Orlando, Florida and finished fourth in the driver's point standings last year.
In the avalanche of fax-delivered press releases for the '98 running of the Indianapolis classic, I've been unable to find a single reference to Cheever. He was an unofficial "spear-carrier" for the event, but had the good fortune of landing Rachel's Potato Chips as a team sponsor in an eleventh-hour deal. His good luck culminated in winning the Indy 500 and the $1.43-million that went with it.
Young? No. All-American? Not exactly. Up through the midget and sprint car ranks? I doubt that Cheever ever turned a lap on a dirt track. Good old boy? More the champagne than beer type.
But the dream that Tony George had of less-well-heeled teams making good at Indianapolis has come true. How much more low-key a sponsor can there be than Rachel's Potato Chips?