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Cheever has also taken up golf for the first time. Speed is such an ingrained way of life for him that when his Italian-born wife, Rita, complained that golf was taking up too much of his time, Cheever's solution was not to cut back on how many rounds he played, but to cut back on the time it takes to play them.
Cheever regularly shoots in the 80s, and despite all the rushing around, his interest in golf is a signal that he is learning to relax off the track. "Five years ago I would have laughed if someone had told me to play golf, but I enjoy it more than almost anything," says Cheever, whose English is tinged with the trace of a Continental accent. He also is fluent in French, and he uses top-gear Italian around Rita, the teenage sweetheart he married a decade ago, and their 1�-year-old daughter, Estelle.
Cheever has developed the ability to peel off every vestige of the racer's life along with his fireproof overalls. At his Aspen, Colo., home, there's virtually no talk of cars. "My family life is an oasis I can come home to," he says.
Cheever doesn't much care for cars, and he is not that fond of driving when he's not on a race circuit. While you're mulling that bit of irony, take this down: Cheever gets carsick. It used to happen frequently during races, but now Cheever is resigned to not eating before a race.
Sullivan believes Cheever has less to adapt to than other road-course specialists were obliged to because there are fewer oval track races on the CART schedule—only five of 16 races this past season. But as long as the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway is around and the biggest prize in motor sports is awarded there, Ovals 101 will be the most important course for CART. Cheever, who calls the ovals either "the most exhilarating experience a driver can have" or "far and away the most frightening," has been taking copious notes. Fittipaldi knows firsthand how difficult the road-to-oval transition can be. In a phone conversation at the beginning of the Indy Car season, the two-time F/1 champion cautioned Cheever to take it slow. "On road circuits the speeds are lower, and you can make mistakes and recover, but oval tracks are not forgiving," Fittipaldi said. "At first you go quick—but not so quick—and you gain more experience. Then you go faster."
Still, for much of the two weeks of practice leading up to the Indy 500, it did not seem as if Cheever were ever going to go faster. The infamous Turn One at the end of the Speedway's 3,320-foot-long front straight had him badly spooked, and he kept braking going into it. Cheever consulted with Ganassi (who had been the fastest rookie qualifier at the Speedway in 1982), Sullivan and Rick Mears, but despite their encouragement and tips, he was still tapping the brake pedal. "They kept telling me to go into it full throttle," he says. "But for me it was natural to try to slow the car down. Every time around I kept focusing my eye on what patch of wall I thought was going to be mine."
"Where are you looking?" Unser asked.
"At the wall," Cheever said.
"That's a mistake," said Unser. "Forget that. Look at the groove." With Unser's advice echoing in his head, next time out, Cheever concentrated on the trail of tire rubber laid down by the fastest cars. He picked up 3 mph. He qualified for the 500 with a rookie-record average of 217.926 mph.