IRL: Ross Cheever aims for chance at Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, April 7, 2000 -- Ross Cheever's goal in life when he was a teen-ager was to join the professional tennis tour and travel the world winning grand slam tournaments. Brother Eddie Cheever Jr., winner of the...

INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, April 7, 2000 -- Ross Cheever's goal in life when he was a teen-ager was to join the professional tennis tour and travel the world winning grand slam tournaments. Brother Eddie Cheever Jr., winner of the 1998 Indianapolis 500, already was driving in Formula One when their father sent Rome-born Ross to the Harry Hopman junior tennis camp in Florida. Fellow campers included Paul Annacone, currently Pete Sampras' coach, and Jimmy Arias. Then in 1981, Ross attended the Formula One race in the parking lot at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. "It was just one of those charismatic things that became imbedded in my system," Ross Cheever said April 7 as he waited through the rain for his chance to begin Rookie Orientation at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and become eligible to drive in this year's Indianapolis 500. Ross is driving a Team Cheever car owned by his older brother Eddie. "I was mesmerized by it all," he said. "When you walk in here, like yesterday, 'Wow?' It was one of those things where I've seen a lot of racetracks, but there's something about the karma even if there's nobody here. You feel the history." Ross' father had invested heavily in time and money to make him a premier tennis player. Ross played tennis for five hours a day from the time he was 14 until 18 and suddenly had to tell his father he want to scrap it all to become a race driver. "I'm not one to hold my feelings back, and I said, 'Dad, I want to be a racing driver,'" Cheever said. "He said, 'Forget it.'" Cheever jokingly said that his subconscious caused him to experience tendinitis in both knees. He underwent surgery, but his father insisted that before Ross did anything else he had to graduate from high school. Cheever learned he could get a diploma by taking a GED test, aced it and was ready to face his father when he spent Christmas with him in 1981. "I said, 'Dad, here's my diploma,'" Ross said. "'Can I go to driving school now?' He was ticked." It was his mother, Rosie, who talked the father into sending Ross to a driving school in Italy, the same one his brother had attended. He did well, and his father offered to further his racing career by providing him the money set aside for college. Young Cheever, with additional help from a friend in Scotland, launched his career. He won many races in Formula Ford, and in a race at Brands Hatch in England made a brilliant outside pass to win. That impressed a car owner, who offered him a test in a Formula 3000 car. Ross' father never had to support him thereafter. Over the years he drove in a variety of racing series, winning often. He spent eight years racing in Japan, competing against drivers like current Formula One standouts Michael Schumacher, Eddie Irvine and Heinz-Harald Frentzen. He even got a chance to drive three races for A.J. Foyt in CART, but it was a short-lived deal because he had to return to Japan to do contractual testing. "I look at it as a positive experience because I was there fighting to the end," he said of his racing in Japan. Cheever had a number of opportunities to move up to Formula One, but things never got to the point were he signed on the dotted line. He blames himself somewhat for not making the right the decisions at the right time and for possibly racing in Japan too long. "Life was so good, I kind of got spoiled," he said. "I was catered to, flying around first class, all the money I wanted. I used to win hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money for victories and things. Money can put things a little bit out of perspective." So he retired in 1994. He had married, had two children and said the grass looked greener outside of racing. He didn't return to the sport until he joined his brother Eddie at the Indy Racing Northern Light Series Open Test last December at Walt Disney World Speedway. "I decided after a lot of consideration and internal misery (to come back), because I did feel like somebody had taken one of my legs away not having raced for five years," Cheever said. "I was wondering what was going on. "It was just basically that I'm a racing driver. That's what I had done most of my life. It was making me live my life to a lesser extent, and I was feeling I really wasn't living. And I was just sitting there waiting for something magical to happen." Ross called his brother and told him he wanted to return to racing. Eddie suggested that Ross move back to the United States because the opportunities were better. He moved to the same area of Florida where he spent his tennis-playing days and began sending resumes. Interest was slim, because he was out of the sport for five years and had no oval experience. So Eddie invited him to participate in the test at Orlando and become a test driver for the Infinity Indy engine program. Ross' ability shown during that testing helped him get an opportunity from his brother to take the Indianapolis 500 rookie test. Ross said he is taking things one day at a time because his comeback thus far consists of four days in a car. "I'm a racing driver," he said. "I like the green flag and that black and white thing with the checkers on it at the end. That's what I want to get to. When it happens is not totally in my hands. All I have to do is be professional, and know when to be fast and know when to be smart. "Racing is the passion of my life. It's my reason for waking up in the morning. But at the same time it is with a respect not only for the walls but also for all the people involved. I mean the Owen Snyders and Dane Hartes and the team. I think it is to Team Cheever I'm bringing respect. I'm not bringing respect to Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever, my brother, because I think he is just a small piece of why he won it. "I think Eddie is a wonderful driver, but at the end of the day his whole package is what's going to make me a better racing driver." Ross Cheever turns 36 on April 12. What could be a better present than to earn the chance to be in the same Indianapolis 500 starting field with his brother? Then maybe he could get a Grand Slam victory that never came his way in tennis.

-IRNLS/IMS-

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Series INDYCAR