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Different outlook

Cheever has money, engine to repeat victory from 1998

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Posted: Thursday May 25, 2000 01:25 PM

  Eddie Cheever Big-time sponsorship support has made Eddie Cheever competitive again. AP

INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) -- Eddie Cheever Jr. found it hard to cash in on his 1998 Indy 500 triumph, but now armed with a new infusion of sponsorship money, he says he's hungrier than ever for success in Sunday's 84th running of the race.

When the Formula One and CART veteran claimed his first and only Indy crown in 1998, it was a very lean year.

“We were a dramatically underfunded team. We were living on the prize money and I had some very motivated employees who got everything right. We beat big teams that spent 10 times more money than we did,” said the veteran of 132 Formula One races.

His relative poverty was ironic in light of the multimillion dollar budgets his former Formula One employers, like Renault and Alfa-Romeo, lavished on him and their teams in the 1980s.

Then he drove in CART for Chip Ganassi. In 1993 through 1996 he raced at Indy for John Menard, one of the wealthiest businessmen in the sport, and A.J. Foyt.

Cheever started his own IRL team in 1997 winning his first Indy car race at Orlando in January. His next, and biggest, win was the Indy 500 in the following year. Even that achievement was not enough to win the necessary support.

With the roaring success of NASCAR siphoning off support for open car racing, Cheever failed to obtain a big-name sponsor in 1999.

But Cheever is now clicking after securing sponsorship from Internet service provider Excite and an engine deal with Nissan Infiniti.

That sponsorship support has made the 42 year-old American more than confident although he has qualified a Dallara-Oldsmobile only 10th fastest in the 33-car field.

“We've reached a point where I think we can go head-to-head every race weekend with any race team out there,” he said. “If I were to compare the team we had in 1998 with the team we have now, I would say we have double the capacity to solve problems.”

In that doubling he had hoped to enter a car for his younger brother, Ross, a veteran of Japanese Formula 3000 who had served as a test driver for the team.

Those plans were dashed when Eddie, a veteran of 10 previous races here and 36 in the IRL, crashed on the opening day of practice May 9.

Cheever made the decision to concentrate on his effort exclusively. He explained that “my crash put us a bit behind, and there is too much at stake for all of us to go fully prepared.”

The only question mark may be under the airscoop in the engine department. Cheever is driving a Nissan Infiniti powered car, one of two in the field. In the 33 events run under the existing engine rules no Infiniti has won a pole or a race. His team made the change from Oldsmobile at the end of last year.

Defending his choice of motor, Cheever explained, “I believe we have the best race engine out there. People have to understand that other teams have a minimum of $500,000 invested in their engine inventory, and it's very hard to take those assets and dump them to move to Infiniti.”

Cheever has faith that his team will take him to the checkered flag and the winner's traditional swig of milk and first-prize check for over $1 million.

“We have the same group of people, but it's like the team has been given a shot of testosterone: we're meaner, nastier, and trimmer. Come Sunday, if you're going to win, you're going to have to beat us.”


 
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