ROOKIES EYCKMANS, McGEHEE HAVE DIFFERENT PASTS, SAME FUTURES By Dick Mittman indy500.com INDIANAPOLIS, April 9, 1999 -- In 1973, Wim Eyckmans was born in March in Brussels, Belgium, and Robby McGehee in July in St. Louis. Now in their ...
ROOKIES EYCKMANS, McGEHEE HAVE DIFFERENT PASTS, SAME FUTURES By Dick Mittman indy500.com
INDIANAPOLIS, April 9, 1999 -- In 1973, Wim Eyckmans was born in March in Brussels, Belgium, and Robby McGehee in July in St. Louis. Now in their mid-20s, their paths have crossed at the most famous racetrack in the world - the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They have competed thousands of miles on racetracks across America and Europe as aspiring race drivers trying to reach the same goal at the same time. Now they are nearing that goal: competing in their first Indianapolis 500. Both breezed through the Rookie Orientation Program Thursday at the Speedway to become eligible for practice and qualifying when the famed track officially opens for race practice May 15. The 83rd running of the 500 will take place May 30. Eyckmans will drive as a teammate of defending Indy 500 champion Eddie Cheever Jr., while McGehee comes with a new Pep Boys Indy Racing League team formed by Dave Conti of Pittsboro, Ind. McGehee drove for Conti in U.S. F2000 last season. "I think most of the people in Belgium pay attention to me," Eyckmans said. "I think it is big news in Belgium that I make it." Said McGehee: "I've been excited for the whole past year practically knowing it was just kind of icing on the cake. Walking in, it was just great. Crossing the yard of bricks the first time on the track was very significant for me." Eyckmans and McGehee certainly followed different roads to Indy, but oddly both as youngsters were attracted to the excitement and glory of the Indy 500 as they watched the race on television. It's 4,194 miles from Brussels to Indy, and the widest spot in Belgium would fit within the 224 miles McGehee must commute to the track from his St. Louis home. McGehee learned to appreciate the race from his late maternal grandfather, Wayne Burdick. He was the ultimate fan, McGehee said, attending practices, qualifying and the races at the Speedway. McGehee became so enthralled that when he was 7 he wrote a school essay about how he wanted to drive at Indy. "I just remember watching the Indianapolis 500 since I was a young child," he said. "(The essay) is a little embarrassing for me. It's like walking around showing baby pictures. I don't remember really writing it, but I remember who won the race so I guess that's proof of it." Eyckmans didn't write any essays, but his fascination with Indy has been equally lengthy. "It's been for a long time," he said. "I watch it on television, see in the newspapers." When it came to racing, Eyckmans got a jump on his then unknown counterpart McGehee. Eyckmans started racing go-karts at 12, won the Belgium championship, then moved on to the European and world competitions. By the time he was 17, he had stepped up to the Opel Lotus series. McGehee, on the other hand, had to wait until he opened a Christmas present when he was 16 before his love of fast cars was propelled into actually driving them. His father gave both he and his mother, Janet, a gift to the Skip Barber racing school, and they ended up racing against each other for a couple of years. She never beat him, but the son said he was impressed with how well she performed. "She gave it up in the initial stages," he said. "There was financial need for support. Two people racing in the same family wasn't going to work, and she saw a future career in it for me." By 1994, McGehee was driving in Formula Dodge, scoring three victories and getting nine top-three finishes. At the same time in Europe, Eyckmans had advanced to Formula 3000, competing against the likes of reigning Pep Boys Indy Racing League champion Kenny Brack, CART standout Gil de Ferran and Indianapolis 500 veteran Vincenzo Sospiri. He drove fast and well, but engine problems plagued him throughout the season. Both Indy rookies had a hero in their youth. McGehee idolized A.J. Foyt and, particularly, Johnny Rutherford, while Eyckmans closely followed the Formula One career of Cheever. Oddly, Eyckmans now is driving for his hero, and McGehee's hero is instructing him at the Speedway. "I was always following him (Cheever) in the newspapers, watch him on TV," Eyckmans said. "I was thinking to race last year with him, but we had not enough time to organize it very well. I raced another year, so I'm back this year." Eyckmans realized the short chance of making the Formula One contingent -- "there are only 22 drivers, I find it boring," he said -- so he decided to turn his career to America and the Indy 500. He notes that this race starts 33 drivers and has as many as 50 drivers attempting to qualify. "I am happy I can race here with one of the best teams from last year," he said. "And I think also Eddie understands me very well, because he raced also in Europe. Sometimes maybe we don't use the right American phrase, and he can translate for me." While Eyckmans tested and drove in three Indy Lights races (Vancouver, Laguna Seca and California Speedway), McGehee was competing in U.S. F2000, a support series for the IRL. He made 38 starts, won two, and his 137.064-mph lap last August at Atlanta Motor Speedway was the fastest in series history. He said that F2000's role as a support race for many Pep Boys Indy Racing League events helped owners become acquainted with up-and-coming drivers and provided opportunities for the drivers. The young drivers saw that it was wiser to stay in F2000 than move on to Formula Atlantic. "If it was still CART around here, I don't know if I would have had the same opportunity," he said. "The IRL has opened the opportunity, and that's just excellent as far as I'm concerned." Both drivers have their eyes set on winning the coveted Bank One Rookie of the Year Award. It is presented to the first-year driver who performs the best from rookie orientation through the race. A special committee votes on it each year, and a check for $10,000 and the trophy are presented at a reception before the Victory Banquet the day after the race. And when everything surrounding this year's race is complete, will McGehee write a follow-up essay? "Maybe I'll save that until I win it," he said with a laugh. How about a collaboration called "The McGehee-Eyckmans Report?"