Indianapolis, Indiana Eddie Cheever won his first Indianapolis 500 in an exciting race that saw the debut of an impressive crop of rookie drivers. Cheever, a veteran of Formula 1, CART and eight prior 500s, held off former 500 winner...
Eddie Cheever won his first Indianapolis 500 in an exciting race that saw the debut of an impressive crop of rookie drivers. Cheever, a veteran of Formula 1, CART and eight prior 500s, held off former 500 winner Buddy Lazier in an all-or-nothing battle over the final quarter of the race.
When the green flag fell on the well-formed three abreast formation, pole sitter Billy Boat took the lead, with the rest of the field falling into line behind him. The yellow came out when J.J. Yeley (middle of row 5) spun in Turn 1, with no contact. Several cars, including Cheever, made brief pit stops while the field was re-formed for a single file restart on Lap 3.
After the restart, the early part of the race was dominated by the hot shoes in the first few rows running for the lead. After a dozen laps, Greg Ray took the lead away from Boat. Tony Stewart moved up from his second row starting position, passing Ray for the lead at the start/finish line on the 21st lap. Stewart's run up front lasted less than a quarter of a lap when his engine blew in Turn 1. During the ensuing yellow, much of the field made their first routine pit stops. Last year's winner Arie Luyendyk stalled several times, with clutch problems that would eventually cost him a chance at the win.
Green flag racing resumed with Ray leading, followed by Kenny Brack, Davey Hamilton, Scott Goodyear, Robby Buhl, Scott Sharp, Roberto Guerrero, Sam Schmidt, Buzz Calkins and rookie Steve Knapp. Boat, who had stalled leaving the pits, fell to 11th place. The leaders were settling down for the long haul. Buddy Lazier, who had fallen back with handling problems, was running just ahead of the leaders, and Ray was content to follow in his draft.
An early wave of attrition hit during these laps. Greg Ray's fine ride up front ended on lap 33 when he stopped on the back stretch with transmission problems. He was able to rejoin the race, but was never a factor again. Stewart's teammate Buhl began to slip back with engine problems, finally expiring on lap 44. Boat suffered transmission problems, and made a number of stops throughout the day, including a session behind the wall. He also interrupted the action several times later in the race when he needed tow ins.
Buhl's blown engine brought out a yellow, triggering the next round of pit stops. Buzz Calkins and Buddy Lazier did not stop, putting them into first and second place when the race went green again on the 49th lap.
The race was interrupted on that lap by a major incident in Turn 3. Sam Schmidt attempted to pass Davey Hamilton on the inside. Hamilton came down, squeezing Schmidt onto the grass. Schmidt spun into the wall. Cheever, on the low side immediately behind Hamilton and Schmidt, passed safely underneath. The following pack of cars was not as fortunate. Wattles, Guerrero, Dismore, Greco and Guthrie were caught in a chain reaction. Guthrie took to the grass as a large piece of bodywork flew toward him, and hit the outside wall almost head on. He was taken to Methodist Hospital, where he underwent surgery for a broken elbow. He also broke some ribs and a bone in one leg. He is expected to recover fully, and be back racing in four to six weeks.
Guerrero saw that his car appeared to be intact, and was towed in. In the garage area, his crew worked feverishly replacing bent and broken suspension pieces. He went back out 70 laps down, but running well. The repairs enabled him to pick up three positions over cars that dropped out as the race progressed.
There was another round of pit stops during the lengthy yellow. Lazier and Calkins were able to capitalize on their earlier decisions to stay out. They were now caught up and back in sequence. Lazier was also able to correct the handling problems that had plagued him earlier.
Racing resumed on lap 64, with Kenny Brack on point, followed by Cheever, Sharp, John Paul, and Luyendyk. Thirty laps of exciting green flag racing, including a round of green flag pit stops, followed. Cheever thrilled the crowd by taking the lead from Brack on the 68th lap, diving low in Turn 1. Cheever provided a thrill of a different kind during his pit stop, when he began to pull out before the fuel hose was disconnected. Unlike Lloyd Ruby's experience in 1969, the car was not damaged.
A fuel problem also struck Kenny Brack, who coasted in dry on the 88th lap. Colorful language was overheard on his team's radio link. Brack was able to coast all the way to his pits and finished well, but never ran among the leaders again.
Two of this year's rookies began to shine during these middle laps. Steve Knapp (later named Rookie of the Year) ran cleanly among the leaders all day. Robbie Unser also held his own during this time, running as high as second place in the middle of the race.
At the halfway point, veteran John Paul Jr. was leading, followed by Hamilton, Robbie Unser, Luyendyk (who ran well on the track despite having lost first gear), Lazier, Cheever, and Knapp, all on the lead lap. For the next quarter of the race at least three or four of these cars would run nose to tail, looking for an advantage. John Paul led 39 laps, but in the later laps lost position to faster cars among the lead pack.
Luyendyk took the lead around the 3/4 point. On his next pit stop, his clutch, taxed from second gear starts, finally gave out, and he came to a stop on the short chute beyond the pit exit. Soon after that, it was down to four cars on the lead lap: Cheever, Lazier, Knapp and Paul.
With 32 laps (and one green flag stop) to go, Cheever and Lazier cranked up the speed, pulling out to a two-car duel under green, leaving Knapp behind and lapping Paul in the process.
On Lap 176, Cheever lost the lead to Lazier as they made their final pit stops, Lazier's crew getting the job done quicker. Two laps later, Cheever regained the lead on the track.
With Lazier in his mirrors, Cheever used every inch of the track to hold the lead. Reminiscent of his qualifying run, he came close to whitewalling his tires several times exiting Turns 3 and 4. As in qualifying, the result was extra speed. Lazier and his crew knew that they could not catch Cheever on speed, and concentrated on restarts. A series of yellow flags provided opportunities on Laps 179, 182, and 195. Nothing panned out on Lap 179, and a three-wide encounter with lapped traffic used up the Lap 182 start.
Cheever and Lazier were nose to tail on the final restart. Both drivers played it perfectly. Cheever again rim-rode through 4, not losing any ground to Lazier, but Lazier not giving anything away either. To put the icing on the cake, Cheever continued his arc out of 4, dropping low to deny Lazier the draft and the low line. As they settled down along the front straight, Cheever's speed began to show again. Over the next five laps he pulled away to a 3.1 second lead and took the checkered flag for his first Indianapolis 500 victory.
In victory circle, Cheever's first words were "I don't know what I'm supposed to say." Rarely a man at a loss for words, he quickly recovered. "Second was not in the books today. I was going to either win or not finish at all." Speaking of growing up in Italy, he recalled his father's advice that the Indy 500 was the one race to win, he said "This one's for my dad."
The eight rookies in the race distinguished themselves, with six finishing in the top twelve positions. Rookie of the Year, Steve Knapp finished third, completing all 200 laps and earning entry to the 100 mph Club. Cheever's teammate Robbie Unser finished fifth, continuing the tradition of Unsers at the Speedway. Crowd favorite Jack Hewitt finished twelfth, energing from his car to greet a throng of cheering fans surrounding his pits. His thoughts were of his father. "Pop and I have now both finished our first 500. I hope I did good enough to make him proud."
Ken Plotkin - Motorsport News International