Debate-weary Cheever expects competitive 500

Poster boy for IRL thriving in driving for Nissan Infiniti team

Auto Racing

May 28, 2000|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

INDIANAPOLIS - Eddie Cheever is too old and his racing portfolio too extensive and too impressive for him to serve as "poster boy" for an Indy Racing League that remains adrift in unfulfilled aspirations.

Tony Stewart emerged from Midwest short-oval proving grounds to fulfill that role. But he won an IRL championship and bolted for NASCAR Winston Cup racing.

No other young hero has surfaced from the grass-roots upbringing Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George envisioned upon his 1996 IRL launch in conflict with the established CART open-wheel series.

Thus has the 42-year-old Cheever, loquacious and a true believer, emerged as senior statesman and go-to spokesman for the IRL.

When the green flag unfurls over the 84th running of the Indianapolis 500 today(Ch.2, 11 a.m.), Cheever will be bidding for his second victory in three years.

Most pleasing to him, owner/driver Cheever attained that career peak "with probably one-tenth the money [IRL rivals] Team Menard and Kelley Racing spent" in pursuit of the same goal.

"That would not have been possible in any other series in the world," Cheever said.

The flip side, in terms of viability for the 5-year-old IRL, is that not until the second race this season at Phoenix did Cheever secure his present Excite@Homeprimary sponsorship.

Though never a winner in either Formula One or CART, Cheever has been competitive in a career launched when, at 19, he was hired as a test driver for the Ferrari Formula One team.

He finished sixth in F-1 points in 1983. He was in the top 10 in CART points for three seasons.

The IRL rejuvenated Cheever's career, and he's appreciative. Still, he admits that he has become a reticent front man in the ongoing IRL-CART rift.

"I'm as tired of having to defend [the IRL] as I'm tired of having to criticize [CART]," he said.

Cheever welcomes Al Unser Jr.'s full-time IRL involvement, applauds the Indy 500-only challenge from CART's Target/Ganassi team, and marvels at what he perceives as a remarkably competitive 33-car lineup for today's race.

At the end, he speculated, "I think the final group will be five to eight. I'm quite certain one of Ganassi's cars will be there. Now that [1996 champion] Buddy Lazier has a Dallara [chassis], I'll bet money he'll be there."

He also rattled off the names of Unser Jr., pole-sitter Greg Ray, and IRL regular Mark Dismore ... and, of course, he included himself.

The conclusion: Competition will be first-rate.

Cheever, whose IRL record includes a pair of Disney 200 triumphs, tries to be honest in his state-of-the-IRL assessment.

"Do we have a lot of work to do?" he asked rhetorically. "We have a monstrous amount of work to do." Glaringly, the IRL schedule has slipped to nine races this year from a high of 11 in 1998.

"Will it be better if we find a way to make CART and the IRL joined under one roof? Why would it not?" Cheever said.

No signs exist of an imminent unification. In the meantime, Cheever - one of only two drivers with a Nissan Infiniti engine - is creating the foundation for long-term team ownership.

His Indy 500 win and the team he has been able to build have validated his career decisions, he said.

"I had a dramatic life change about three years ago, when I got divorced," he said, "and I jumped into what I'm doing here with my full spirit."

Cheever's results undeniably would be better had he not agreed to become Nissan's "factory" team before last year's Indy. But he would have given Infiniti its maiden victory at Disney in January had he not been victimized by a slower car while leading.

Maybe that comes today.

(Lineup, 15E)

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