Cheever won't let Indy fence him in Brush with wall, other mishaps don't prevent 500 win

May 25, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- The first time Eddie Cheever came to the Indianapolis 500 and the place they call The Speedway, it terrorized him.

"I didn't start my career thinking of ovals," said Cheever, a 40-year-old American who grew up in Europe. "I thought I'd win the Formula One race at Monaco.

"The first time I came here [1990], I didn't understand the speed. I'm still learning ovals. When I first came here, they warned me about the wall, but they'd call it 'the fence.' When I saw it, I said, 'That's not a fence; that's a wall. I've run into fences before, and that's no fence.' "

Cheever's face seemed to glow then. Yesterday, he whitewalled "the fence" in the fourth turn with four laps to go and still won the Indianapolis 500.

At Indianapolis Motor Speedway, when it's time for a driver to win the 500, nothing can stop him. That's the legend of Indy. Yesterday, Eddie Cheever proved it.

Not only did he survive the brush with the wall, but he also persevered through two other incidents to capture his first 500 title, before an estimated 400,000.

At the end of the day, Cheever, the first driver to win from the 17th starting position since 1941, was averaging 145.155 mph and running away from the field. Buddy Lazier, who won here in 1996, was running second, a distant vision in Cheever's rear-view mirror, 3.191 seconds behind. The only other driver on the lead lap was rookie Steve Knapp, who finished third.

"It's just so hard to come that close and not get it," said Lazier. "We gave it all we had, but we just didn't have enough for Eddie. I used up everything I had trying to catch him. Eddie did a great job."

It's not as if Cheever, a nine-year Indy racing veteran, is a quick study. This is only his second win in 229 starts, and his victory is a fitting end to the wild 82nd Indianapolis 500.

It was wild before it began. First, thunderstorms throughout the night and early morning put the race in doubt. And then, six minutes before the command to start engines, a runaway dog cut down pit road, eluded every grasping hand and made a half-lap around the track before disappearing across the nearby golf course.

Police finally caught him, and track officials said last night that the dog likely will be adopted by Mary George, the Speedway's chairman of the board.

Jim Nabors finally got to sing "Back Home Again in Indiana," the balloons floated skyward, the engines started and the race began before the wildness resumed in earnest.

Pole-sitter Billy Boat brought the field down for what looked like a perfect start, only to see a first-turn crash develop behind him and start Cheever's day on a thought-provoking note.

"I thought, 'Oh no! This is a shame. My car is good. How stupid,' " said Cheever, recalling how his car had been rear-ended by rookie J. J. Yeley in the corner and sent into a skidding frenzy before righting itself. "This place is a monster. If you don't get it right, it'll eat your lunch."

It ate up Boat (gearbox). It gobbled down Greg Ray (gearbox), Tony Stewart (blown engine), Kenny Brack (no fuel) and Arie Luyendyk (gear box, clutch) while each was leading the race.

It took another shot at Cheever on Lap 85 during a pit stop. Cheever misunderstood chief mechanic Owen Snyder's directions and started to leave his pits with the fuel hose still attached to his car.

But Cheever got away with it and then took aim at the man who would give him his strongest competition, John Paul Jr.

"He was just hounding me," said Cheever, who would eventually lead the most laps (76). "He was the hardest person to shake. If things had gone his way, he would have won it."

Things didn't go Paul's way. After leading at the halfway point, he stalled his car on several pit stops and developed clutch problems that eventually relegated him to a seventh-place finish. But afterward, you might have thought Paul had won.

"There were times in my career when I didn't know where my next ride was coming from," said Paul, who went to prison in 1986 for two years on a conspiracy to import marijuana conviction after he refused to testify against his father.

Paul's father, charged with attempted murder of a grand jury witness and drug trafficking in 1983, is serving time in a federal penitentiary in Kansas until 1999.

"I've put the past behind me," Paul said. "And today, it was awesome for me. I came here the first time when I was 9 with my dad, and finally I was a contender instead of field filler. I'm ecstatic."

Once Paul was out of contention and Lazier had been left behind on the final restart with five laps to go, Cheever had just two more things to worry about: that final brush with the wall and his own nerves.

"I thought the car was going to break," said Cheever, whose line brought him close the wall all day. "I had no reason to think so, except for past history. But I must have had 15 angels looking out for me. I had five or six near-misses, and the last 20 laps were the hardest I've ever driven.

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