Eddie Cheever's right foot leans harder on the gas pedal of the pace car, sending the engine's note up several octaves and the big Day-Glo digits on the dashboard toward 90 mph. Pit row blurs by as he guides the magenta Oldsmobile convertible along the deserted straightaway at Portland International Raceway. "See those?" he says to his passenger, pointing at the two long yellow concrete blocks framing the first of nine turns of the track. "You aim the car between them." As the car reaches the markers, Cheever's foot eases off the throttle and taps the brake, and the digit on the dash becomes 70. Cheever maintains his speed and negotiates the next curve with only his left hand on the steering wheel. "This is just one big puppy-dog leg," he says, his free hand gliding through the air, mimicking the car's movement. "You're hardly moving the steering wheel at all." To drive the point home, he yanks the wheel as he enters the next turn and the car careens to the edge of the track. He must dance on the brake pedal to make the car regain equilibrium. Over the piercing screech of overworked tires, Cheever shouts, "If you have to do this, you won't be in position to take the next turn at top speed!"
Unnerving as it may be for the uninitiated, this is a relaxing drive in the country for Cheever, who 16 times this year wedged himself into an Indy Car, lowered the visor on his Stars and Stripes-adorned helmet and did the same maneuvers at speeds—depending on the racetrack—up to three times as fast. The 32-year-old former Formula One driver did it so well on the Championship Automobile Racing Teams (CART) series that he finished ninth in the overall standings and earned $724,720 plus a $50,000 bonus as Rookie of the Year. Many observers are convinced that Cheever will follow the tire-track steps of Emerson Fittipaldi, another former F/1 driver, who went on to win the Indy 500 and the CART points championship in 1989.
Cheever has traveled a long road, with some very unexpected twists, to reach this point. In 1962, when he was four years old, Cheever's parents, who are now divorced, left Phoenix to open a chain of health clubs in Europe. He grew up in Rome, speaking English and playing basketball with other Americans at Notre Dame School, but speaking Italian and racing go-karts with his neighborhood friends.
By the time he was 17, Cheever was racing open-wheel cars and was definitely on the fast track to becoming a Grand Prix driver. Danny Sullivan, winner of the 1985 Indy 500, was racing Formula Three cars in Europe when Cheever stormed onto the scene. Sullivan recalls that "everyone said Eddie was going to be the guy." In 1978, barely out of his teens, Cheever got his first Formula One ride, and it seemed only a matter of time before he would win the world driving championship.
That time could not come too soon for Cheever, who had grown up with a sort of expatriate version of a Little League father. Edward McKay Cheever Sr. was an intense businessman who was equally passionate about racing. In pursuit of racing success, Cheever Sr. had put his son on a vegetarian diet, and made him run three miles a day and study karate after school. "He pushed the buttons, and I went through the motions," the younger Cheever says. "Racing was something I wanted to do probably more for the favor of my father, since I didn't see him very much. If he wanted me to go fast, I'd go as fast as I could."
Cheever's first full season in F/1 was 1980. He was only 22, but he was sleeping three or four hours a night and had an ulcer. Ten years later he still had not won the championship; in fact, he had not won a single Grand Prix race in 133 attempts. Surprisingly, Cheever's reputation as a driver did not suffer. Most observers ranked him among the top-echelon drivers and excused his lackluster record by noting that he had shown little talent for playing politics in order to land a car equal to his talent.
At the end of 1989 Cheever planned to switch from F/1 to sport/prototype racing, driving for Jaguar, in whose cars he had won seven of the 16 events he had found the time to enter in 1987 and '88. He had earned enough money on the Grand Prix circuit to assure himself of a comfortable living for years to come, and his relationship with his family had matured. He is on good terms now with both his father and mother, but he is quick to say, "The family has nothing to do with my decisions. I figure that when they don't pay the bills, they should have nothing to say about what I do."
A decade ago sport/prototype endurance racing might have been the only option open to Cheever, but the growing purses and prestige of Indy Car racing have lured increasing numbers of Formula One drivers to the ranks of CART—not only Indy 500 winners-to-be Sullivan and Fittipaldi, but also Teo Fabi, Roberto Guerrero, Raul Boesel and Derek Daly. "Growing up in Europe, the only thing I saw was Formula One, but racing at Indianapolis is something I've always wanted to do," Cheever says. "My father used to tell me how he went and saw Indy the year I was born, and Jim Bryan, a guy from Tucson, won."
Even with the Jaguar deal pending, Cheever arranged a meeting with Indy Car-owner Chip Ganassi last December. It went well, and the day after Christmas, Ganassi called Cheever in Monte Carlo to offer him a ride with his team. On New Year's Day, the two men faxed each other signed contracts.
"Hyper" is the way Ganassi Racing's team manager, Tom Anderson, describes Cheever. "In a lot of ways, he's like a little boy right now," Anderson says. "You have to lead him around until he knows which direction he's going." Cheever learned quickly enough to score nine top-10 finishes on race courses that he was seeing for the first time.