DC ON THE ROAD - CHEEVER IN CHARGE Indianapolis: This is the epicenter of North America's open-wheel racing, NHRA and - insofar as three Rolex Series teams are concerned - Daytona Prototypes. Excepting I-465 and I-865, no Interstate highways...
DC ON THE ROAD - CHEEVER IN CHARGE
Indianapolis: This is the epicenter of North America's open-wheel racing, NHRA and - insofar as three Rolex Series teams are concerned - Daytona Prototypes.
Excepting I-465 and I-865, no Interstate highways actually begin or end in this crossroads city. But the four Interstate and roughly half-dozen U.S. highways which pass through Indianapolis extend north, south, east and west to practically all the corners of the United States.
One might find more motorsports engineers and wrenches per capita in Indianapolis than in any other area of the country save, perhaps, the Charlotte, N.C., area.
In a relatively small radius one can drive by the team headquarters and shops of just about every IRL team - IndyCar Series and Indy Pro Series, alike - as well as those of the soon-to-be defunct Champ Car Series.
Staying within that radius, it's just a short drive from the Indy Racing League's home office and, just across the street, the grandfather of open-wheel tracks (and soon to celebrate a string of 100-year milestones), the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Not too far away from The Brickyard is the race shop of 1998 Indy 500 winner, Eddie Cheever.
Driving for car-owner Chip Ganassi in 1990, in his first Indy 500 Cheever snared Rookie-of-the-Year honors, driving to an eighth-place finish after starting 14th.
Besides simultaneously winning at Indy in 1998 as car owner and driver, Cheever also still holds the Indy 500's single-fastest race lap of 236.103 mph, set in the 1996 race.
Before that and while compiling more Formula One race starts to date than any other North American-born driver, in the late-1980's Cheever also found time to score 10 sportscar wins for Tom Walkinshaw Racing.
Other than when tuning a chassis or, perhaps, getting a little seat time during the Rolex 24 At Daytona, about the only thing driving Eddie Cheever today is his Cheever Group - the topmost of various business entities that, for the most part, continue to chase Cheever's quest of the checkered flag.
Beyond staying trim and having looks that have well withstood his 50-years, Cheever's wide-ranging motorsports experience makes for some detailed and protracted thoughts on that subject's many different layers.
Meeting with Cheever on the heels of putting Humpty Dumpty together again (open-wheel unification), the "big" question was laid on him very soon after this journalist walked through the Cheever Group's front door:
"You gonna field another IRL team now?"
As though he'd either pondered or had the question put to him dozens of times already, Cheever was all over it.
"Not unless it's profitable," he said.
"And even should I field an IRL team, I'm also staying right where we are now, in Daytona Prototype. I've got a great sponsor in Crown Royal Cask No. 16 and this Rolex Series is one of the best functioning, most forthright and competitive I've seen anywhere. There are no favorites over here - manufacturer or otherwise - and that's what I most enjoy about it."
In 2007 Cheever starting securing the operational rights to Dave Klym's FABCAR DP constructor license and, when one thinks about it, started a blazingly fast development program that pushed the FABCAR quickly into becoming one of the DP field's fastest cars.
Though some saw it coming, Cheever's No. 39 Crown Royal Special Reserve (for 2008: No. 16 Crown Royal Cask No. 16 Pontiac-powered Dallara) took many observers by surprise when driver Christian Fittipaldi put the car on the second row for May's U.S. Sports Car Invitational at Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway and, a month later at the EMCO Gears Classic at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, was one of only four cars to lead the race after starting from the outside pole.
In the 19-car Mid-Ohio DP race the No. 39 also was one of only two cars (the pole-sitting No. 99 GAINSCO Pontiac-Riley being the other) to crack the 1:19-lap barrier.
In August at Montreal's Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve, Spain's Antonio Garcia (who driving for the team in 2008, along with co-driver Italian Matteo Bobbi) teamed with Fittipaldi to drive the Crown Royal car to eighth on the starting grid and finished fourth in the race after leading three laps.
At the 2008 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Cheever introduced a new DP design, "Developed in three countries on two continents," Cheever said, christening it the Coyote DP01 which, in typical fashion for "hot-off-the-press" cars, suffered teething problems and finished 58th.
Such hasn't dampened Cheever's spirit or intended goal, which is to build not just a winning team but to produce a winning car as well.
Indeed, many observers believe some of the aerodynamic improvements found on the GEN-2 DPs came from the work Cheever and team had pioneered during 2007 as the Coyote morphed from the FABCAR.
"Frankly, I didn't think too highly of the DP at first," Cheever said, "But now that I've driven and crashed a DP myself, I know that its protection and safety are second to none."
Cheever said the DP tub's protective strength and resilience became especially apparent during a promoter's test day (non-official test) at Mid-Ohio on the Thursday prior of the EMCO Gears Classic races.
The Cheever car was caught up in a six-car, turn-nine wreck caused by a sudden downpour.
"The guys stayed up all night, fixed the frame, put some new body panels on it and the very next day it got the outside pole," Cheever noted. "That's really pretty spectacular when you think about it."
"As an owner, I don't want to see crashes. I don't want to see my driver hurt and I don't like spending extra money to fix things. But crashes are going to happen in racing, that's just the way it is, and I'd much rather have a car that can sustain heavy damage but be repairable versus a car that you just have to trash."
"It's on both fronts that I've grown to appreciate the value of a DP, beyond the fact that they also put on a great show."
Probably much like every other Homestead-Miami Speedway-bound DP, the No. 16 Crown Royal Cask No. 16 Pontiac-Coyote sat nearly bare on Cheever's shop floor as the crew worked bit by bit to ready the car for the GAINSCO Miami Grand Prix, Mar. 27-29.
"This is an extremely competitive series that is based on a concept whose time has come," Cheever said. "It doesn't lean on a manufacturer for support. Nor does it have that same manufacturer telling the series what it must do."
"To me, with more than just one or two sportscars having a chance at winning, that leads to exciting racing."
As demonstrated by a racing past that stretches to when he was eight years old, Eddie Cheever knows how to and fully expects to win in what he believes to be a "winning" series.
Having seized and now steering his own fate, it's only a matter of time before Cheever and company again find the checkered flag first.
See you at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
DC Williams, Exclusively for Motorsport.com