CHEEVER HITS ROAD TO SPREAD PEP BOYS IRL MESSAGE Indy 500 winner's visit to Fla. short track impresses fans, competitors INDIANAPOLIS, Nov. 3, 1998 -- Eddie Cheever Jr. is on a mission to spread the word about the racing opportunities...
CHEEVER HITS ROAD TO SPREAD PEP BOYS IRL MESSAGE Indy 500 winner's visit to Fla. short track impresses fans, competitors
INDIANAPOLIS, Nov. 3, 1998 -- Eddie Cheever Jr. is on a mission to spread the word about the racing opportunities available in the Pep Boys Indy Racing League and to bring more attention to the big-league, open-wheel circuit.
Cheever, the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion, took his campaign to the grassroots level on Halloween night when he made a highly anticipated appearance at New Smyrna Speedway (NSS).
New Smyrna Speedway is a 30-year-old, half-mile asphalt oval located in the middle of cabbage fields of Samsula, Fla. Samsula is about 15 miles south of Daytona Beach, Fla., while NSS is several light years away from the historic elegance of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
New Smyrna Speedway is pure Southern-style, Saturday night racing, featuring everything from slick Super Late Models to beat-up jalopies appropriately called Bombers. In other words, this is the furthest point from a high-profile IRL venue and event.
But Cheever sees NSS and a hundred little tracks like it in a different light. The highly decorated open-wheel veteran believes that NSS -- stuck smack dab in the heart of stock-car country -- can become a recruiting station of oval-racing talent.
When Cheever was offered the job of honorary starter for the Oct. 31 Race Rock Restaurant/Florida Governor's Cup 200 Late Model feature, he didn't blink an eye before accepting the position.
Robert Hart, who owns and operates New Smyrna Speedway, was impressed with Cheever's show of support for small-town racing.
"I think it adds a lot of credibility to what we do here," said Hart. "It says that the Florida Governor's Cup is more than just another race."
Said racing veteran David Rogers: "I've been racing 25 years, and I've never remembered an IRL guy or Indy-car guy coming to a short-track race for any reason. This is probably a first, and I know it's a positive."
Rogers is a former NASCAR national champion. He won the 1994 Winston Racing Series title, or NASCAR's national short-track championship. NASCAR's national short-track program incorporates more than 100 tracks.
"The first step toward getting people interested in the IRL is getting people to know about it," said Rogers. "Maybe somebody that meets Eddie tonight will become a fan. That's the whole secret of any motor racing."
Cheever moved to Orlando eight months ago and feels closely associated with the entire Central Florida community. Orlando, about 50 miles southwest of New Smyrna Speedway, annually plays host to the Pep Boys IRL season-opening Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway.
Cheever spent the bulk of his New Smyrna visit signing autographs and spreading the IRL theme and philosophy to competitors and race fans, who seemed to genuinely appreciate the driver's message and attendance.
"The IRL is trying to build a bridge between tracks like New Smyrna and the Indy 500," said Cheever, who owns and operates a two-car IRL effort. "We want them to know that they can go to the 'big one' by starting at a track like this. The road starts here, then goes from here to Walt Disney World Speedway, and from there to the Indy 500.
"Twenty years ago, most of the drivers in the Indy 500 were from short tracks. Now, we're building back that road to Indy. Who knows? We might have watched a future Indy 500 winner race at New Smyrna Speedway."
Cheever's message was heard loud and clear by several New Smyrna Speedway competitors, who said the IRL is a clear option for career advancement.
A good example is B.J. McLeod, who at the tender age of 14, has won 17 Late Model features this season. McLeod started racing go-karts when he was still in diapers and seems destined for a big-league motorsports career.
"I'd run IRL," said McLeod. "I've never been to an IRL race, but I've seen those cars close up at museums and stuff, and I really like them. I like how fast they go, and I bet they handle like a dream with those big tires. I know they'd drive better than what I'm driving now."
McLeod said he drove go-karts for seven years before turning to the bulkier Late Model division to earn high-speed oval seat time.
"You can't really do Indy cars at my age, so I'm doing this," said McLeod, who's home schooled and boasts an A-average. "Ever since I was 5 I wanted to drive Indy cars, and I still want to drive in the Indy 500."
McLeod said he prefers oval racing to road courses and said the IRL is the only pure oval-racing circuit in the world of professional motorsports.
"I don't care to turn right," said McLeod, with a laugh. "Even NASCAR Winston Cup has two road course races. I don't care for them. It would be nice to run all high-speed ovals."
McLeod said he'd someday like the chance to drive an IRL car, citing his previous go-kart experience.
"I like to drive fast," he said. "I think I could do good. If I ever get the opportunity, I'll sure try to make it work."
Cheever is making this pitch to short-track racers even though he came up through the open-wheel, road-course feeder system in Europe.
Cheever won the International 100cc European and Italian Go-Kart Championships at age 15, and finished second in the World Karting Championships a year later.
After proving himself in the go-kart ranks, he moved into Formula racing going from Formula Fords, to Formula Three and Two and finally Formula One in 1980. He stayed on the F1 tour through 1989 before making the Indy 500 his top priority in 1990.
He finally realized his ultimate dream in May by winning racing's biggest and most coveted prize. The drama of capturing the Indy 500 gives Cheever, 40, goose bumps to this day.
"My win there is only starting to sink in," said Cheever, who finished the 1998 Pep Boys IRL season ninth in the standings but tops in money-won at more than $1.8 million. "I thought winning would be anti-climatic, but it wasn't. The Indy 500 is the most important sporting event in the world, and to win it is pretty cool."
Cheever was one of 15 drivers who started all 11 IRL races this year. He completed 1,465 laps and led 85 laps, including the last one over the famous "yard of bricks."
Not only does Cheever possess the 1998 Indy 500 title, he owns the team, and the car wheeled by Sprint PCS Pep Boys IRL Rookie of the Year Robby Unser, who started eight races this season and scored a runner-up finish at Texas Motor Speedway.
"We had a really good year, a competitive year," said Cheever. "It started off on a difficult foot when one of the companies sponsoring us backed away. But I won the 500 and Robby won rookie and it turned out good for us."
Cheever picked up sponsorship from Rachel's Gourmet Potato Chips, and The Children's Beverage Group sponsored Unser.
Team Cheever hopes to build on that success in '99, and has already planned a test session at Phoenix International Raceway in the next week.
"I always like to meet and greet people, like at New Smyrna Speedway," said Cheever, whose team is headquartered in Indianapolis. "But now it's time to get back to business and prepare for next season."
Still, Cheever left a lasting impression on several stock-car oriented race fans and competitors at a little track in Florida. Maybe the seed he planted will someday blossom into a launching pad for IRL talent.
"I heard talk that New Smyrna Speedway is thinking about starting an Indy-car kind of class next year," said Rogers. "Wouldn't that be something?"