IRL's Cheever takes quest to Atlanta

Posted: Thursday, July 13, 2000

Eddie Cheever Jr. waves to the fans at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the opening day of qualifications for the Indy 500 on May 20.

His charisma is every bit NASCAR; his panache is pure high society.

Eddie Cheever Jr. has the exceptional blend of charm and talent to possibly save the Indy Racing Northern Light Series. He is comfortable is every situation rubbing fenders with the good ol' boys in stock cars, using technology to win on the IndyCar circuit and, most importantly, understanding the business models of each of the two endeavors.

His career has taken him from smaller open-wheeled cars to Formula One to Championship Auto Racing Teams to the IRL, but Saturday's Midas 500 Classic at Atlanta Motor Speedway will be a chance for Cheever to move a step closer to his first championship.

''My temperament rarely changes,'' Cheever said. ''I try to attack. I never count my chips until the game is over. I don't see my driving style changing.''

Cheever leads the IRL point standings after six of nine events.

His victory June 18 at the Pike's Peak (Colo.) Raceway not only vaulted him into first place, but it also provided the Nissan Infiniti engine with its first victory in 34 career IRL races a losing streak that spanned 312 years. His three previous IRL victories, including the 1998 Indianapolis 500, were powered by the Oldsmobile Aurora engine.

A victory on the 1.54-mile quad-oval a staple on the stock car circuit for the past 41 years would assure Cheever of at least an 18-point cushion with only two races remaining on the schedule.

''I'm no way far enough ahead to throttle back,'' Cheever said. ''It's nice to be leading the championship, but we still have a long way to go. The important thing is to keep calm and focused on the championship.''

Cheever's stock-car-like mentality will be an asset on the speedway that features average speeds in the 220 mph range and the steepest banking 24 degrees on the schedule.

''Atlanta is like Daytona for the Winston Cup drivers. It's relatively easy to drive flat out by yourself, but in a pack, if you lose the draft, you're done. Likewise, if you know how to use the draft, you can catch up to a lot of people. It's very aggressive racing, which I enjoy.''

Cheever turned heads last month when he tackled the NASCAR boys on their home turf the superspeedway at Michigan. He won the International Race of Champions event at Michigan, giving IndyCar only its second win in the last 53 races featuring the top drivers from several racing series. And in the process of winning, he took a fender from the toughest stock-car driver on the planet, Dale Earnhardt, and he never flinched.

''That,'' he said, ''showed that we of the IRL could compete with anybody.''

Since his visit to Atlanta a year ago, Cheever has suggested he will explore NASCAR in the future.

He's tried everything else, so it seems natural that he finally will end up where his talent and personality will be best served.

''I like what NASCAR's done,'' Cheever said. ''Their success is due largely to their ability to market their drivers. They sell their drivers, their drivers' personalities, and not the cars. It's been an interesting marketing plan, but it's one that certainly works."

Cheever spent this year examining the costs and rewards for a venture either on the NASCAR Busch Series or the NASCAR Winston Cup Series as early as 2001. It would be the same road followed by Tony Stewart, a former IRL champion.

''I'm intrigued by NASCAR,'' Cheever said. ''But right now, my focus is on winning this championship.''

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