EDDIE CHEEVER: 1996 Indianapolis 500
“A race I should have won,” ponders Eddie Cheever. “Have you got three weeks?” Then, from a driving career spanning nearly 30 years, he picks one in which he qualified only fourth, never even led and was down in 11th at the flag.
The mid-1990s was a stormy period for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Tony George’s breakaway Indy Racing League had just staged its first two races, splitting the US single-seater fraternity into two warring camps. Having planted himself firmly on the side of the IRL, Cheever was planning to launch his own team. But for now he was sticking with Team Menard, in spite of a disastrous 1995 Indy with the squad.
“It was a difficult time in my career,” Cheever recalls. “That year the Menard cars had run really badly in the heat. So the day after the race I started testing. I spent the whole summer running round. It was incredible how many miles we did. But we learned so much.”
By May 1996 John Menard’s Lolas and his self-badged Buick V6s were on the button. But animosity was now rife between Cheever and team manager Larry Curry. Then tragedy struck. Scott Brayton had already secured his second consecutive Indy pole for Menard when he died in a practice crash at the wheel of the test car that Eddie had just stepped out of. “With that terrible loss, and the team being in total disarray, it all unravelled,” Cheever recalls.
Still, come race day, Cheever knew he had a car to deliver Brayton a fitting tribute. But, on arrival at the track, he was in for a surprise: “One of my tyre changers had been taken off my car and given to one of my team-mates; Curry’s son had taken his place.”
Cheever’s victory hopes were blown at the first pitstop: a stuck wheel cost him a lap-and-a-half. “I spent the whole race trying to catch up,” he says. “My car was mind-bogglingly fast — I just turned up the boost and ran flat out all the way.” His reward was the fastest-ever race lap at Indy. Thanks to the engine and chassis rule changes that followed in ’97, his 236.103mph may never be topped.
But this record is no consolation. “I cannot see any reason why you would change a pitcrew on the morning of a race,” he sighs.
Cheever did win at Indy — with his own team — in ’98. Fittingly, he beat Buddy Lazier, who had stood in Victory Lane two years earlier.