LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2000 - Open-wheel oval racers, said 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever Jr., are the bravest drivers in the world. "There is a wall," he said. "The wall is not a figment of your imagination." A...
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2000 - Open-wheel oval racers, said 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever Jr., are the bravest drivers in the world.
"There is a wall," he said. "The wall is not a figment of your imagination."
A field of 26 drivers, including Cheever, two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser Jr., 1996 Indy winner Buddy Lazier and 1999 Indy Racing League champion Greg Ray, will take up the challenge at noon Saturday in the Delphi Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway, the Indy Racing League's 2000 season opener.
Cheever, born in Phoenix but reared in Rome, spent the first 12 years of his major-league racing career driving on the Formula One road circuits of the world. Then in 1990 he joined CART in America and was introduced to oval racing.
"When I came over, oval racing was as foreign to me as speaking Russian," he said. "Now I love it."
Cheever, who just turned 42 on Jan. 10, is the defending champion of the Disney race. He will drive the Team Cheever-Infiniti-Firestone Riley & Scott/Infiniti/Firestone in this event.
An old challenger that Cheever watched win many races in the early 1990s makes his first appearance in this event as a new challenger to Cheever in the Indy Racing League. That would be Al Unser Jr., who competed against Cheever on the CART circuit until Cheever joined the Indy Racing League in 1996 and Unser stayed in CART.
Cheever welcomes Unser back with open arms, because he knows Al Jr. is a skilled oval driver with whom he can confidently race wheel-to-wheel. "To call Al a rookie is an oxymoron," Cheever said. "Don't try that rookie stuff on me.
"Anytime Little Al sits in a race car where they turn left, he's a contender. He's a great addition. I tell everybody on my team Al is one of those we all have to consider as a contender."
There is a mutual respect developed among drivers in open-wheel racing since they cannot afford to make a mistake at 200 mph when racing just inches apart, Cheever said.
Cheever said the toughest thing to do is to take a car into the first turn at Indy at 200-plus mph with the right foot on the throttle, feeling 95 percent sure the car will make it. Getting the last 5 percent can be the difference between winning and losing.
"The last 5 percent is all mental," he said. "It takes a lot of discipline." Both Cheever, who also won the 1997 Indy 200, and Unser, driver of the Galles ECR Racing G Force/Aurora/Firestone, want to win a race before going to Indy in May. Cheever has extra work to do because his new Riley & Scott chassis arrived late. Unser has the challenge of learning the idiosyncrasies of the car, track and the driving style of many drivers he hasn't raced against.
"We'll get out there during practice and keep our eyes and ears open," Unser said.
"We spent some time in the cars (during preseason testing)," Unser said. "The package feels an awful lot like the 1987-88 seasons on ovals. You run an awful lot of throttle. I'm feeling comfortable. I almost feel everything is falling into place. I feel good going down there."
Which is better than he has felt in CART the past four seasons. After winning 31 races during his Indy-car career, he went winless in a balky Penske Racing car during the last four seasons. That and his desire to win another Indianapolis 500 brought him to the Indy Racing League.
"Very frustrating," Unser said about his most recent seasons. "We're on to newer and better things. We'll take what happened the last two to three years and get on down the road.
"My main thrust is to win a race. I haven't won one in three or four years. My main goal is to win one before Indy, treat Indy as another race and win it."
Cheever has the same train of thought.
"I'm aiming to be very strong by Vegas (April 22)," said Cheever, who admitted he may have problems in the first two races learning his new chassis. "My goal is to win the first race for Infiniti (Nissan engine) before Indy. I'll then focus on Indy from April on."
Both racing greats noted how difficult it is to drive the Disney tri-oval. It is very hard to find a compromise in the car setup that keeps the car smooth through all three corners, Cheever said.
"It's a great place for the IRL to start its season," Cheever said.
DELPHI INDY 200 AT WALT DISNEY WORLD SPEEDWAY NOTEBOOK
Schedule: The Delphi Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway starts at noon (EST) Jan. 29. Pole qualifying starts at 12:30 p.m. Jan. 28.
Practice sessions start at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Jan. 27, and 10 a.m. and 4:15 p.m. Jan. 28.
An autograph session with all Indy Racing drivers is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Jan. 28 in the Midway outside Turn 3 at the track.
The USAC Coors Light Silver Bullet Series 50-lap feature starts at 2:30 p.m. Jan. 29, with qualifying for that event at 2 p.m. Jan. 28.
On the air: The Delphi Indy 200 will be televised live on ABC at noon (EST) Jan. 29 on ABC. The debut of "Indy Racing 2Day" will be at 11:30 a.m. Jan. 29 on ESPN2.
ESPN2 will televise pole qualifying at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 28.
The Indy Racing Radio Network will broadcast a 30-minute prerace show at 11:30 a.m. Jan. 29, followed by the live race broadcast at noon. The area IRRN affiliate is WQTM-AM 740, Maitland, Fla.
The IRRN race broadcast also will be available live on the Internet at www.indyracingleague.com as part of a partnership between Indy Racing Online and Yahoo!/broadcast.com, the world's leading Web broadcast site.
Tickets: Tickets are available for the Delphi Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway by calling (800) 822-INDY or by visiting tickets.com at http://www.tickets.com . Ticket information also is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.indy200.com .