BROOKLYN, Mich., Saturday, June 10, 2000 -- Eddie Cheever Jr. has logged hundreds of practice laps in True Value International Race of Champions Pontiac Firebirds. He studies videotapes of past IROC races at his home in Orlando, Fla., looking at...
BROOKLYN, Mich., Saturday, June 10, 2000 -- Eddie Cheever Jr. has logged hundreds of practice laps in True Value International Race of Champions Pontiac Firebirds.
He studies videotapes of past IROC races at his home in Orlando, Fla., looking at driving techniques applied in the invitation-only series that is contested in stock cars. He has picked the minds of all the True Value IROC test drivers.
All of his hard work and dedication the last two years paid off Saturday with a rousing, upset victory in the True Value IROC Round 3 at Michigan Speedway.
Cheever went to the lead with 22 laps remaining in the event by mixing it up with NASCAR Winston Cup Series veteran Mark Martin, then held the point the rest of the way as some of NASCAR’s finest, such as Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt, tussled for runner-up honors.
Not only was Cheever the first active Indy Racing Northern Light Series driver to score a victory in the all-star series, but the first open-wheel driver to win an IROC round since Al Unser Jr. won at Daytona in February 1997. Cheever became the first open-wheel driver to win the Michigan round since Unser in 1995.
The win caught even Cheever off guard. He didn’t shave Saturday morning before heading to the track for the race then found himself on national television in victory lane.
“It’s such an honor even to be invited down to compete in the IROC,” said Cheever. “Had I known, I would have shaved today. It was a lot of fun. I want to thank IROC and True Value and Goodyear for inviting me down here. This is such a phenomenal place.”
Cheever’s stunning victory in the 50-lap sprint over Michigan Speedway’s 2-mile oval was not only a huge personal triumph for the former Formula One star but a win for the Indy Racing League.
Cheever was followed across the finish line by a host of stock-car superstars, such as Stewart, a former Indy Racing series champion; and Earnhardt and Martin, who have won the True Value IROC championship between them the last six years.
Rounding out the 12-car field were Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Rusty Wallace, Mark Dismore, Greg Ray and Jeff Burton. Dismore and Ray are the other two drivers representing the Indy Racing Northern Light Series. Ray, who started fourth on the grid, had a flat tire late in the race while Burton suffered an engine failure.
“It’s taken me a long time to learn it,” Cheever said of the True Value IROC. “Give credit to all the NASCAR drivers. There was always this rumor that when you came down to race IROC they ganged up on you. That's not true. They gang up on everybody! Everybody’s free playing.
“They race hard. I had a great race going with both Earnhardt and Martin. It’s just fun.”
And the fun isn’t over yet. Round 4 of the True Value IROC is scheduled Aug. 4 as the prelude to the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Following Saturday’s race, Cheever had moved up to fifth in the IROC standings behind Earnhardt, the defending series champion, Martin, Stewart and Labonte.
Cheever is still mathematically in the hunt for the IROC championship. Cheever, the 1998 Indianapolis 500 champion, would not be intimidated by the NASCAR corps at Michigan Speedway even though the Winston Cup drivers are much more familiar with the handling characteristics of these stock cars. Cheever, the 42-year-old driver and owner of Team Cheever, started on the outside of the front row next to Dismore and couldn’t be rooted out of the top five. He held his ground like watchdog on patrol.
When Earnhardt and Martin tried to gang up on him midway through the race, Cheever took matters into his hands with a daring inside pass of Martin. The two drivers rubbed fenders and bumpers, and nearly crashed before Cheever took command of the lead.
Once Cheever grabbed control of the race, the NASCAR drivers chasing him started battling each other for position. Each time Martin or Stewart tried to gain a position, Cheever’s lead -- and the smile on his face -- would grow just a little bit wider.
All the conditions worked in Cheever’s favor Saturday. He had a good car. The NASCAR drivers were so busy racing each other they forgot about him. And Cheever had enough experience to make the most of the opportunity.
The difference in his performance was the track, said Cheever, who said the Indy Racing Northern Light Series drivers had little or no chance of success at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway or Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, where knowledge of the drafting effect is the key to victory.
“When we go to places where it’s only drafting, we have no idea what we’re doing,” said Cheever. “I worked with other people, and they worked with me today, and it was just a lot of fun. There was a lot of driving. I almost hit the wall three or four times, but today was one of those days where almost doesn’t count.”
For all of Cheever’s success, Dismore and Ray were equally unhappy about their performances.
“The part that’s really frustrating is that these things aren’t hard to drive, but I keep saying that and I keep getting my butt kicked,” Dismore said. “It makes me feel like an idiot because it’s not hard to go around the track wide open, but I keep looking like a schmuck. I want to say I’m getting the hang of it, but until I get I get a good result, it’s ridiculous to say that, really.”
Both Dismore and Ray hope to end the True Value IROC season on a high note at Indianapolis.
Now Cheever can brag that he’s bagged a stock-car race featuring some of NASCAR’s greatest drivers. On this day, Cheever beat the Winston Cup’s best at their game.
“I beat Earnhardt,” Cheever said with delight after returning to Texas. Before heading out the gate to catch a private jet bound for Fort Worth, Texas to compete in the Casino Magic 500 on Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway, Cheever issued a light-hearted challenge to the nine stock-car drivers he had just whipped in their arena.
“To get a crack at all the NASCAR boys is a unique experience,” Cheever said with a smile. “I’ll send an open invitation to all of them to come down and play with us a little bit at the Indy Racing Northern Light Series.”