CHEEVER CARRIES QUIET MOMENTUM INTO PHOENIX HOMECOMING By Dave Argabright indyracingleague.com Special Contributor PHOENIX, March 22, 1999 -- He has traveled throughout the world, to glamorous spots filled with romance and adventure....
CHEEVER CARRIES QUIET MOMENTUM INTO PHOENIX HOMECOMING
By Dave Argabright indyracingleague.com Special Contributor
PHOENIX, March 22, 1999 -- He has traveled throughout the world, to glamorous spots filled with romance and adventure. He has enjoyed fame and fortune as a racing champion, hailed by tens of thousands of race fans calling out his name. But when he returns to the Valley of the Sun, Pep Boys Indy Racing League point leader Eddie Cheever Jr. can be just plain Eddie. Cheever, 41, was born in Phoenix, and his father was born in Globe, Ariz. Although he now lives in Orlando, his family roots run deep into the sun-bleached soil of Arizona. "Sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, I've got a bunch of family that still lives out there," said Cheever with a laugh. "It is by far the most expensive race I run all year, because of all the tickets I have to buy to supply my family." They will definitely be on the phone this year, calling for tickets. Ch eever heads for Phoenix International Raceway red-hot with momentum for the MCI WorldCom 200 on March 28. Cheever won the season-opening TransWorld Diversified Services Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway in late January, driving the Rachel's Gourmet Potato Chips/Children's Beverage Group Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear. "I love PIR, I love the racetrack and all the atmosphere," he said. "The track has so much history and heritage, so many good stories. "In the past, it was always the precursor to Indianapolis, so you could often get an idea of who was going to be strong going in to Indy. It will be different this year (the VisionAire 500 on May 1 will take place four weeks before the Indianapolis 500), but it is still a place with a lot of atmosphere." Cheever is quick to quash any thoughts of overconfidence, and he insists that he is uncomfortable in the role of race favorite, even though he and his Team Cheever colleagues got a great start on the season at Orlando. "I don't like to make a lot of noise, I don't like to attract a lot of attention," he said. "Even though I know we are in the attention-getting business, I don't like to be in a high-profile position as a favorite." But several weeks before the Orlando race, Cheever admitted that he and his team believed they could win the Pep Boys Million as season champion in 1999, building from the enormous boost they received by winning the 1998 Indianapolis 500. Yet, after Orlando, he insisted that he doesn't feel any stronger after the race than before. "I like to use the phrase 'quietly confident,'" Cheever said. "We didn't let Orlando affect our feelings about the season, any more than we would have if it would have been a bad weekend. Would I have been less confident if I wouldn't have won? Not really. "I can't let that one win inflate my attitude. Yes, we have spent the past 24 months getting better, and yes, we solidified some issues this winter that will help us in the engine department. "But you have to understand that when you analyze the IRL, it is a difficult series because everybody is so even. Everything you get in this league you're going to have to fight very hard for." Cheever has assembled a formidable team with team manager Richard Caron, chief mechanic Owen Snyder and crew chief Dane Harte. They bring a truckload of experience, and Cheever believes the team is really jelling. "As a collective group we establish the strategy on how we are going to run the race, and we are really beginning to feel confident in each other and that everyone is strong in their respective roles," Cheever said. "Our strategy is to have the fastest car during the last 30 laps. I am willing to give up the first half of the race in exchange for being the best car at the end. I have learned how to do that, and why it is so critical. "If you look at Orlando, we were never head-and-shoulders above everyone else at any stage in the race. Rather, we were just a little bit better, but at the key time. That's how we won Indy." Cheever has extensive experience in Formula One, CART, and the Pep Boys Indy Racing League, one of very few contemporary drivers with such a varied background. Following his Orlando win, he was outspoken in his support of the Pep Boys Indy Racing League's technical formula, and he feels strongly that the sport is now seeing the advantages of the league's engine and chassis philosophy. "I've spent my entire career in open-wheel racing, and it has always been a technical exercise to some extent," he said. "There has been nothing more frustrating to me, in years past, than to climb into the race car knowing that the red car has 100 more horsepower than anyone else, or that the green car has 200 more pounds of downforce, and there is nothing you can do about it. "What the league has done has made everyone fight very hard for every tiny advantage. It is still possible to find some small advantages, and several teams are showing that. But it isn't possible for anyone to get far outside of everyone else. "Race day proves that. You have many different cars that are clearly strong, and a really varied skill set among drivers and crews. It makes it interesting for the fans but very difficult for the race drivers because it is so keenly competitive." To find those small advantages, Cheever goes back to the well in terms of the experience of his team. "In racing, things tend to repeat themselves, no matter how much we think they change," he said. "We don't know what will happen in every instance, but we can analyze history and study what has happened in similar circumstances. "It's a little bit like a puzzle ? if you have a good idea of every piece in the puzzle and where it goes, and you know you have all the pieces, you will probably get the most out of the situation. "I've often thought that the many races I've lost was because I didn't understand all the pieces in the puzzle. Owen (Snyder) and Richard (Caron), they have helped me understand all the pieces, and today I can see the whole puzzle much more clearly." Recently, Robby Unser announced he would complete the 1999 season with Team Pelfrey after a strong run last season in a second Team Cheever entry that earned him the Pep Boys Indy Racing League Sprint PCS Rookie of the Year award. The team was unable to secure the funding needed for the second entry, and while Cheever expressed disappointment, he admitted that it wasn't an entirely bad thing. "It was a good experience with Robby, and I'm very glad we did it," said Cheever. "But he'll be OK with the new team. He has a great future in this sport, and that was something that I felt was important, to make sure Robby did OK as far as moving his career along. "But there is an advantage in this situation, and that is we'll be able to focus on one car very clearly. Often, running that second car spreads a team thin, no matter how well prepared you are." Cheever looks toward the late-March sunshine at Phoenix, and prepares for round two of the Pep Boys Indy Racing League season. He believes it will be a typical PIR slugfest, complete with drama and unexpected twists and turns. "The toughest thing about Phoenix is that we all test there in the winter, when the air is nice and cool, but by the end of March that old Phoenix sun is starting to burn things up," he said. "So you start the race in an environment that few have tested in, and it just gets worse as the race wears on. The cars change dramatically, very quickly. It's not good for the drivers, but it's great for the fans, because it makes it very unpredictable." Cheever certainly isn't predicting a win. That would be too brash, too cocky for the cerebral, articulate Cheever. But as the laps begin to wind down on that Sunday afternoon, don't be surprised if the man with the sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles throughout the grandstands is a contender for two straight wins. His family would be quite excited.
MCI WORLDCOM 200 NOTEBOOK
Schedule: The MCI WorldCom 200 starts at 2 p.m. (MST) March 28. PPG Pole qualifying starts at 11:20 a.m. March 27. Practice sessions start at 10:45 a.m. and 2:40 p.m. March 26, 8:35 a.m. March 27 and 9:15 a.m. March 28.
On the air: The MCI WorldCom 200 will be televised live at 4 p.m. (EST) March 28 on FOX Sports Net, the network's debut Pep Boys Indy Racing League telecast. SpeedVision will televise PPG Pole qualifying at 2 p.m. (EST) March 27. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network will broadcast a 30-minute pre-race show at 3:30 p.m. (EST) March 28, followed by the live race broadcast at 4 p.m. A 30-minute PPG Pole qualifying show will start at 3 p.m. (EST) March 27 on the IMS Radio Network. The Phoenix-area IMS affiliate is KGME-AM Sports Radio 1360, Phoenix. ***
Tickets: Tickets are available for the MCI WorldCom 200 on March 28. Call (602) 252-2227 for more information. Ticket information also is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.daytonausa.com/pir/