INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, May 19, 2000 -- One year after switching to the Infiniti Indy engine, 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever Jr. is one driver against the world during May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He is the...
INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, May 19, 2000 -- One year after switching to the Infiniti Indy engine, 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever Jr. is one driver against the world during May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He is the only competitor who will attempt to qualify an Infiniti-powered car on Pole Day Saturday. Cheever decided Friday not to make a qualification attempt with his Infiniti-powered team car driven by his younger brother, Ross Cheever. Robbie Buhl's backup car also has an Infiniti engine. It will see competition only in an emergency or through a last-minute driver addition after he has qualified.
But Eddie Cheever is starting his second year of using the engine after making the switch before last year's Indianapolis 500. He qualified 16th and finished 18th when engine problems ended his day after 139 laps in 1999.
Since, he has continued to develop the motor that has yet to either win a pole or a race in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series. On both Monday and Tuesday during this week's practice, Cheever clocked laps in his #51 Excite@Home Indy Race Car Dallara/Infiniti/Firestone in the 221-mph bracket, with a best of 221.506. That's not far off the pacesetting speeds.
"When you're out there, you're against everybody anyway, so it doesn't matter what engine you have in it," he said.
"I don't think the Oldsmobile guys gang together because I have a Nissan more than I might tow with somebody else or tow with another guy.
"It will be good when we win the first race, because of the fact we're the only ones using it. But technology goes in cycles. Oldsmobile has been very strong, and I believe Nissan has closed the gap a lot and soon we will be, hopefully, the ones to beat. We're getting very close."
Cheever said he likes what Infiniti has to offer his company. It has helped keep him in the hunt for a second Indianapolis 500 victory.
He said the engine has experienced minor refinements this year after taking what he called "big chunks" out of problems during last season. He believes the engine he is running at Indy may be replaced by a stronger version after the Pikes Peak race in mid-June.
"We don't have anything qualifying-wise (for Indy)," he said.
"We tried about a month ago, but it just took too much effort away from our race program. Our biggest goal we're trying to achieve here is to run hard for 500 miles, come what may."
Team Cheever hasn't focused much on winning a pole during the 11 races it has used the Infiniti, Cheever said, but he thinks the engine is capable of putting his car in the front couple of rows.
"I wouldn't say we all are shocked by the speeds we have had in (preparation for) qualifying, but we have done nothing different. We've just been preparing for the race. The first two rows would be a very good start for us. I'd be very happy with it.
"It would be very ironic winning, that the first race that Infiniti would win would be the Indianapolis 500, because shortly thereafter the engine would be put on the shelf as the new 35A takes its place. Life is full of ironies."
Cheever noted that the fickle weather conditions have been difficult for everybody this week, but he was pleased that his car has been consistent through the heat, cool, moisture and wind. He said it has been very confusing for all competitors.
"I think there are a few teams out there who have a few bullets left in their engine department that will make them faster than everyone else," he said.
"(Team) Menard concentrates very hard on qualifying. They've been doing that for a long number of years, and John Menard has a great tradition of making a run for the pole. We haven't spent any time developing an engine to do that."
What about the Target/Ganassi Racing team? Juan Montoya and Jimmy Vasser each have led the speed chart once this week.
"If you were to take all the open-wheel racers from one series or another for the last decade, you have to say the Ganassi team has been the dominant player in open-wheel racing," Cheever said.
"They didn't come here unprepared. They are a very big organization with a lot of depth, great racing drivers, and they've done very well. But look at the speed charts. Everyday there has been a different person up top. And the person up top has not been there by the distance of more than 5 or 6 feet. "They are a very strong team. They have very good race cars, but there are very many strong teams out there. Nobody dominates in the Indy Racing League. That's the whole principle of what we can do."
Cheever pointed out that the whole philosophy of the Indy Racing Northern Light Series allows the Ganassi team to buy the equal equipment and immediately become a competitive threat.
"Regardless of how much money I had, I could not go in the other series and buy that equipment, just because it's not available," he said. "Certain teams have contracts with certain engine manufacturers that give them the best engines. Bruce McCaw, owner of PacWest, is not lacking in money, but he does not get the engines everybody else gets. So it just goes to show you, their principles are different than ours."
Winning the Indianapolis 500 has changed Cheever as a driver in some ways. He still has the fire to win, but also he now knows leading early in the race doesn't always provide victory.
"Probably more patient," he described as the way he drives now at 42.
"Everyone asks me if you have more pressure now that you've won the Indy 500. I think it is exactly the opposite. There is less pressure now that you won the Indy 500."
He said he now can sit back and take his time making decisions. He has more assets to work with than he did in 1998, when a last-minute potato chip sponsor got him financially into position to win. The team today is stronger, and the support from his sponsors has allowed him to plan on a yearly basis instead of just for the month of May.
"I'd say I've grown with the company, and the company has grown with me," he said. "The team has been together for three years. It's working well."