HAMPTON, Ga., Aug. 21, 1998 -- The roar, and now the lore, of racing is what fascinates Eddie Cheever Jr. The noise, excitement and thrills are what attracted him to the sport when he began his driving career in a go-kart at age...
HAMPTON, Ga., Aug. 21, 1998 -- The roar, and now the lore, of racing is what fascinates Eddie Cheever Jr.
The noise, excitement and thrills are what attracted him to the sport when he began his driving career in a go-kart at age 13 on Rome's Pista d'Ora circuit in 1971.
The history, which he now is a significant part of as the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion, is something he senses as he suits up for the first time at a new track. He knows, for instance, that NASCAR greats like Fireball Roberts, Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, David Pearson, Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett have helped make Atlanta Motor Speedway a racetrack with an illustrious list of winners.
Cheever adds AMS to his list of tracks worldwide where he has competed when the inaugural Pep Boys Indy Racing League Atlanta 500 Classic presented by MCI is held on Saturday night, Aug. 29.
Phoenix native Cheever, raised in Rome, has driven in 133 Formula One races, 82 CART events and 20 in the IRL for a career total of 235 major-league races. There are three racecourses -- Monaco, Monza and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- that he reveres above all others.
His love of Monza, located north of Milan, Italy, explains his devotion to the history book.
"I like racing circuits where there's been a lot of history," he said. "I like driving on the same piece of road that Ascari and Fangio raced on, the same ones that Parnelli and Foyt raced on. I like that.
"I am at an age now (40) where I understand the effort that went into eras that came before me. I liked racing at Charlotte. It was the same place Earnhardt won a lot of races at. I understand and appreciate the work that has gone into that.
"Atlanta is very much the same way. We're in the process of making history now."
Cheever also knows that Indy-style cars came to Atlanta in the past and put on exciting races before small crowds. He sees a different feeling among race fans in the South this time. He said the Pep Boys Indy Racing League cars are nimble, they dip and tuck through traffic, and the finishes are close, providing an event that keeps the onlookers on their feet.
"I started racing because of the speed and excitement," he said. "Our series offers all of that."
Cheever is pleased that the Pep Boys Indy Racing League is moving into what used to be staunch NASCAR country and finding fans receptive to open-wheel racing. Charlotte, for instance, drew 70,000 in the first Indy Racing League event there in 1997 and attendance again topped 50,000 for the second event in July. Texas has had two tremendous crowds.
Indy 500 champion Cheever credits the success at those tracks to three factors. One, owner Bruton Smith builds and maintains first-class tracks -- Cheever called Atlanta "an awesome facility." Second, the races are run at night, and third, they are well promoted because the tracks are publicly traded on the stock market.
"If I own shares in one of these publicly traded companies, I want people sitting in those grandstands," Cheever said.
He added that open-wheel racing is regenerating and rekindling the enthusiasm of two decades ago during the era of A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones and Mario Andretti. He wouldn't call it regressing, but returning to things that worked in the past.
When Cheever ran away from Buddy Lazier in the final laps on May 24 at Indy, he finally could claim the race that he longed to win for the last 20 years.
He drove in his first F1 race on March 1, 1978, on the Kyalami circuit in South Africa. He started 25th in a Hesketh/Ford behind, among other greats, Andretti, who won the world championship that year.
In 1986, Cheever drove in his first CART race for Frank Arciero at Miami, starting 11th and crashing on the third lap. He drove his final F1 race at Australia at the end of the 1989 season.
The next season he began his American racing career full time with a seventh-place finish at Phoenix, his first oval. He became a part of the Indy Racing League when it began in 1996, starting last in the first event at Orlando, Fla., due to a post-qualification crash. He placed 10th, his race ending on lap 184 after a crash.
The next year he won at Orlando, although the race was shortened by rain while he led. It was his first victory in major open-wheel racing. There were no question marks about Cheever's win at Indy: He just outdrove everyone.
The victory, he admits, has changed his life.
"I have a lot less free time than I had before," Cheever said. "Actually, I have none at all."
Besides being the winning driver, Cheever also was the winning car owner. Because of the attention focused on the Indy champion, he has had a difficult time keeping his mind on business.
He said about 70 percent of his time has been involved with the media and fans. He has delayed a number of television appearances until fall because there hasn't been time to work them into his hectic schedule. He knows that the window of opportunity is short-lived for any athlete at the top of his game, and he must take advantage of it.
Still, it's been a grind.
"I just took 15 days off," he said. "I was dead. Two weeks after the race I was a zombie.
"You got four hours sleep. I had to go to New York, L.A., Orlando (now his home). You have a lot of things you have to do. I'm glad a lot of that has worn off."
During his off time, he took children Estelle and Eddie III to San Diego for 10 days of surfing. He also finds 90 minutes each day to work out in the gym so he can stay fit.
Cheever feels the outside distractions have taken away from his on-track performance. Since Indy, he has qualified no better than 11th. His eighth-place finish Aug. 16 at Pikes Peak International Raceway was his best showing since Indy. But at PPIR he seemed to have one of the two or three fastest cars and might have contended for victory if a yellow flag didn't snooker him after pitting on green.
"We're suffering right now because our engines are not where they need to be," he said. "We're growing incredibly fast. We now have two cars (second driven by Robby Unser).
"Yes, we suffered a little bit from it. But you do have to remember you are a human being. It's going to make us stronger."