CHAMP CHEEVER CHARGED FOR ANOTHER DASH TO THE CHECKERED INDIANAPOLIS, May 12, 1999 -- He returns to Indianapolis as the defending champ, the man who wore the laurel wreath and heard the cheers and blinked away tears as he drank the cool,...
CHAMP CHEEVER CHARGED FOR ANOTHER DASH TO THE CHECKERED
INDIANAPOLIS, May 12, 1999 -- He returns to Indianapolis as the defending champ, the man who wore the laurel wreath and heard the cheers and blinked away tears as he drank the cool, white milk that every race driver dreams of. Life has changed since winning the 82nd Indianapolis 500 last May 24, Eddie Cheever Jr. will tell you. That single victory elevated him in many ways, giving him true celebrity status and bringing recognition even in the grocery store. As he returns to this land of horizontal beauty, he brings a full calendar and a load of expectations to the Brickyard. "Yes, the amount of responsibility, the amount of interest in our team since winning Indy, it has been multiplied by 10," admitted the articulate and thoughtful Cheever. "I've received many more requests to do things, and there are more things that people are asking me to be involved in. "I'm looking forward to it. You strive as a driver to win certain events, and Indy is one of them. All of the associated interest, things like that, that's part of the fun. You have to be willing to do it, it comes with the job. It's like somebody asking for an autograph -- that might seem a nuisance to some people, but I feel like it is a part of our responsibility as race drivers, to support the fans that support us." According to Cheever, his team is far stronger and more organized than they were one year ago, when they were frantically trying to put the pieces in place for Indianapolis, and not certain what to expect. They had hired chief mechanic Owen Snyder III only months earlier. Cheever, Snyder and team manager Richard Caron were trying to find their stride together. "The funny thing about last year is that we had been hit by a variety of problems before Indianapolis, and there was a lot of responsibility to do well, we HAD to have a good '500,'" Cheever said. "We worked almost 24 hours a day leading up to last May, it was a very difficult time. "It takes a long time for people to jell, and Indy was a major step for us, it helped our team come together. Winning the race, under those circumstances, made it a special moment for everyone on our team. "I'm a totally different person now than I was at that time, many positive things have happened since then. So this year I'm not nearly as anxious as I was last year, but I know I still have to pay attention to the details." Today, Team Cheever looks to Indianapolis as a chance to continue recent success. The team's Indy win in 1998 fueled them to a new plateau in Pep Boys Indy Racing League competition, and they won the season-opening TransWorld Diversified Services Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway in January just a few miles from Cheever's home in Orlando, Fla. Weeks later at Phoenix, Cheever led the MCI WorldCom 200 when he crashed in tight traffic with a fourth of the race to go. He admits that one intangible factor in his team's success can be traced back to winning Indy, and the confidence they gained. "I can't pinpoint any one reason why we are so competitive today," he said. "Most of all, it is everyone's will power, really. That is a huge factor. We are underfinanced compared to many teams, but we make do with what we have, very effectively. "Each member of our team knows their responsibilities, and we are working together with a great deal of confidence, which I think we began to really gain last May. Winning Indianapolis pays you dividends far beyond just dollars and sense." Cheever stunned many in the sport in early April when he announced a relationship with Nissan's Infiniti Indy powerplant, after two years of success with the Oldsmobile Aurora V8 engine. Although the Infiniti engine is clearly making progress on the racetrack, it has still not won a league event. Cheever remains confident that things will work out just fine this May. "I think it will be easier to win the second time," Cheever said. "We have a much deeper database now, a better relationship with Goodyear and Infiniti. We didn't have that last year. But because the playing field is very level now, we also don't have a car that is much quicker than everyone else, or more reliable than everyone else, so we have to focus on the details. "The week prior to qualifying will help us in terms of becoming more comfortable with the Infiniti. We have been very careful to make sure that we enriched ourselves by taking advantage of all the data that is available. There are some questions that remain, such as traffic, and that week leading up to the '500' we will have to do a lot more than the usual preparations. "We will probably spend more time preparing for the race instead of preparing for qualifying. I don't typically qualify well this year, and I'm not happy about that. We need to improve, but I don't want to take away from our race preparation." It would be incorrect to describe Cheever as boastful, or overconfident. But in the days leading up to the opening of the track May 15, he quietly predicted another year of success. "I think I'm going to win," he said. "All I want to do is be in the lead pack, with a strong car under me, for the stretch run. I feel very confident in that scenario. I feel like we can beat anyone out there in that scenario." He corrects himself, choosing his words carefully. "Actually, (Arie) Luyendyk worries me, though, in that scenario," he said. "He is exceptionally good in a late-race setting. But even with that, I feel very good about our chances this year. "I realize that being a favorite adds pressure, but that's good. I see only a positive to that. That means that maybe the other drivers think you are a favorite. Any advantage you get, you'll take." Back to the city of milk and roses comes Eddie Cheever. Returning to the storied, sprawling acres of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a place that rewards every winner with immeasurable fame and credibility. Cheever has had a taste of such glory, and he is very certain of one thing: He hungers for more.