Cheever on the inside looking to win Indy He's in the front row, with 500 miles to go

May 23, 1992|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- Eddie Cheever bounds into the motor home parked next to the garage area. His face is tanned. He runs his fingers through his brownish-blond hair, revealing a streak of gray.

He smiles, boyishly.

"I have a passion for competing," he says, settling into a comfortable position on one of the couches lining the walls. "I love competing. I don't really like testing very much, or qualifying very much. But I love racing. Racing is so exciting, because every thing happens immediately. There is an immediate response to whatever I do."

Eddie Cheever may not enjoy qualifying, but tomorrow, in the 76th annual Indianapolis 500, he will enjoy the benefits of having qualified in the middle of the front row, between pole-sitter Roberto Guerrero and Mario Andretti.

"I'm very proud of what we've done," Cheever says. "We've come a long way." He came here three years ago with a brand-new team put together by Chip Ganassi, and won Rookie of the Year. He says now it wasn't easy, because everyone on the team was in new positions learning how to work with everyone else.

"We had to learn as we went, in real time," he says, "because we couldn't take six months off. It was more a question of surviving, rather than learning."

But he finished eighth in qualifying, the fastest rookie in the race. Last year, he ran as high as sixth, before an electrical problem forced him to retire the car on lap 17, for a 31st-place finish.

This year, he says, his Target team is one of the most underrated teams here.

"But I think we're not going to be underrated for very long," he says. "I'm here to win. Ten other guys are, too. But I'm in the position, that if you want to win, I'm one of the guys you have to beat. There is more relief in that than satisfaction. I did not realize what a big bite I had bitten off when I came here."

But now, he says, "We're getting to a point where we are starting to capitalize on our assets."

The assets are a powerful Ford Cosworth engine and the addition of chief mechanic Morris Nunn.

It also helps to be starting this race up front. Anywhere behind the second row is very difficult, Cheever says, because of all the traffic and the turbulent air it creates.

"It's almost impossible to place the car where you want it," he says. "In the front row, I have only one problem."

Cheever leaves the obvious question hanging: What's the problem?"

"Next question," he says.

"Is he sitting beside you?"

Cheever looks at his tennis shoes.

"Just making sure I get through the first turn," he says.

He is starting between Guerrero and Andretti, the man he has had a continuing disagreement with since Andretti ran over the back of Cheever's car on the first lap in Long Beach April 12. "Anyone can look at the tape and see what happened," Cheever said. "He has stated his case, and I've stated mine."

Andretti, who during the past two years has run into the back of safety trucks, stalled cars and everything else that's failed to move fast enough in his path, has claimed Cheever to be at fault for "braking too early" into the turn.

Cheever has mostly held his tongue. He says he brings here a genuine respect for the men who have achieved so much in this sport.

Only when Andretti began a campaign to have him suspended, did Cheever say anything.

"What Mario did after the accident was totally unethical," Cheever said several weeks ago. "Mario did everything he possibly could to have stopped me from driving. There is no way you can interpret that accident any way other than what happened, because I had a camera in the back of my car. So the fact that Mario was wrong and ran into the back of me is unequivocal. That is a fact. . . . He made a mistake."

But Cheever has come too far and seen too much to dwell on history.

He started in go-carts at 14, but the first time an American audience heard of Eddie Cheever, it was as a lonely American on the Formula One circuit. He did all right from 1978 through 1988, finishing second more than once. But Cheever found there really wasn't a market for an American driver in Formula One.

"There came a time when I said I had to stop," he says. "I knew I had to

race Indy before I stopped racing, and I did not want to do it at a point in my life when I didn't have as much energy as I do now."

The first time he saw an IndyCar, he had come to Michigan International Raceway. He was standing in the first turn, talking to friends, just wanting to get a sense of it. He had his back to the track, when suddenly this roar rose in his ears, and Bobby Rahal screamed by at 230 mph.

It did not persuade Cheever to come to IndyCar racing. "It convinced me they were crazy -- and now I know it," he says.

But Cheever knew he had to drive in the Indianapolis 500 at least once. "Because I'm an American," he says. "That's the main reason. And it's the biggest race in the world."

Cheever is comfortable here. His team is good. He has confidence in those around him.

"When I go to bed at night, I'm not worrying, thinking, 'Did I give them the right information.' " he says. "If we don't win Sunday [tomorrow], it won't be because we weren't good enough. It'll be because we just weren't scheduled to do it."

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